The fundamental Hunt

By Aileen Hennes.

Published in BBC Wildlife September 1995.

In Norway, sealing and whaling are more than just commercial enterprises. They seem to involve the whole national psyche, and anyone who questions them risks the Nordic version of a fatwah. Norwegian conservationist Aileen Hennes reports.

Peau de phoque

Two years ago, the Bergen headquarters of the animal rights organization NOAH – which, among other things, campaigns against sealing and whaling – was deliberately burnt to the ground. The incident followed a year of frequent threats of arson, as well as harassment and physical violence directed against the staff. There is no proof of a connection between the whaling and sealing industries and the arson attack, but there is a history, dating back to thelate 1960s, of similar incidents befalling people who have criticized the traditional hunts. There is the case, for example, of Odd F. Lindberg, the government-appointed sealing inspector whose 1988 report on the hunt, along with his film Seal Mourning, led to the five-year-old ban on killing pups. But a Norwegian court ruled it illegal for Lindberg to publish any part of his report orto show his film or photographic material in Norway. So most Norwegians have never seen Seal Mourning and are convinced that it consists of ‘Greenpeace propaganda’. The court also ruled that Lindberg should pay 500,000 kroner (£50,000) in libel damages to the sealers – a ruling that coincided with the publication of a government committee report (the Aasland Report) confirming the truth of nearly all of Lindberg’s allegations.

Lindberg and his family – who have endured constant harassment – are now living in hiding in Sweden.

It isn’t the first time this kind of thing has happened. In the late 1960s, the NRK (the ‘Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation) decided to make a film about the « proud tradition of sealing, » and asked Thoralf Smith-Svensen to go to the ice for footage. While he was doing this, a film about the Canadian seal hunt, being shown in the United States, was in the process of launching the anti-sealing movement. When the news reached NRK, Smith-Svensen’s film footage was promptly rejected as unsuitable, and he was sent back to the ice to get some Christian Rieber, the owner of Rieber and Company, a Bergen tanning firm, later appeared on NRK to say that the film-maker had attempted to blackmail him. Though Smith-Svensen denied doing any such thing (his claim, published in an article in a Swedish newspaper, was that the blackmail accusation followed his refusal to sell the film to Rieber), he was thereafter a condemned man in Norwegian society. He was never given the opportunity to explain his version ofevents in public, and if it hadn’t been for the article in the Swedish newspaper,the injustice committed against him would have been entirely forgotten. He now lives in a nursing home in Stavanger but will not show any of his film or make any public statement as long as his wife is alive, since the whole experience, he says, has caused her to lose her mental stability.

The next victim was Gunnar Sundquist, who went to the ice as a young man and a first-time sealer in 1979. He took a movie camera in order to bring back asouvenir for his family, but the film he ended up with was so grotesque that he sent it instead to the NRK and the Ministry of Fisheries, along with a complaint about the sealing. His reward was to be run out of Ålesund, a traditional sealing town on the west coast, and never again to be given a job on any Norwegian coastal vessel.

Five years have passed since the ban on killing pups (the hunt on yearlings and adult seals, incidentally, has continued). During this time the sealers and whalers have been busy promoting their cause and government funding has allowed them to travel far and wide. In this period we have seen the return of coastal whaling, even though years of ‘scientific’ hunting has produced no humane killing methods.

The short-lived boycotts of Norwegian goods mainly fish exports, made little difference, but while the protest storms were raging, the NRK gave a lot of prominence to whaling. Thus Norwegian television viewers were introduced to Putting People First, an organization that was formed to oppose the American environmental organization Earth First! This and other groups have since gone into coalition, with the apparent intention of opposing environmental groups everywhere.

Wise Use, as the coalition is referred to, gets much of its support from the oil, mining and forestry industries. It is associated with a network of so-called grassroots organizations and ‘corporate front groups’ in order to appeal to the growing number of people who do not respond to their glossier advertising. Alliance for America, Alliance for Responsible CFC Policy, Citizens for the A number of these organizations lend support to, among others, hunters and trappers, and their way of fighting the environmental movement is primarily to create an unnatural divide between country people and city dwellers. Environmentalists are presented as arrogant urbanites with no knowledge of country matters, while the hunters are upholders of traditional country pursuits and family values, including church-going.

Steinar Bastesen, leader of the Norwegian Small Whale Hunters’ Association and very much an ambassador of the Norwegian whaling policy, has attended the annual meetings of Wise Use in Reno, Nevada, for the past three years. Friends of the Harpoon and the High North Alliance – Norwegian government ­sponsored whaling and sealing organizations – make no secret of their relationship ‘ with Wise Use.

The leader of the High North Alliance, Georg Blichfeldt, is a member of the Norwegian Socialist Party, traditionally a green party, but he and Bastesen say they don’t care about the right-wing politics of Wise Use, as long as it supports whaling and sealing. And as they have the support of almost all the Norwegian environmental organizations, it appears that neither they nor the government mind too much whose ideologies they share.

Though there are fears of boycotts now, after the decision to ‘harvest’ pups again, the mood of the nation is one of defiance. Objections have been voiced bythe foreign minister, and fish exporters are clearly worried.

Judging by newspaper coverage, the government appears to have made the decision in response to an ultimatum by Rieber and Co., which ran out of its surplus stock of high-quality baby pelts last year : unless the baby-seal hunt is resumed, it said, the tannery will not continue to treat the less lucrative skins of the adults. Rieber owns part of the sealing fleet and does almost all the tanning of seal pelts from both Norway and Canada. Out of the 10 million kroner (£1 million) government subsidy to the seal hunt, the firm receives 2.8 million(£280,000). Rieber also sells to the EU, despite its ban on the import of seal pelts, because, as Christian Rieber says, « It is not illegal for me to sell – it is the receivers who commit the illegality. » Despite Rieber’s involvement, this year’s hunt of 2,600 baby seals is said to have been a ‘scientific’ one, as some of the baby seals were shot instead of battered to death – a strange decision taken by a group of scientists who have always claimed that shooting a pup through the brain is much less likely to produce instantaneous death than a proper blow fromthe ‘hakapik’. Hunting sea mammals is made difficult by the environment they live in, but killing a defenseless seal pup lying still on an ice-floe is about as difficult as picking a flower, if there are no emotions to get in the way. Even so,one of the most frequent and shocking allegations against the sealers is that animals wake up after having been skinned.

From Fridtjof Nansen to Odd F Lindberg, observers of the seal hunt have invariably reported these distressing occurrences when the hunters are in a hurry. Norwegian regulations demand that, directly after a blow has been struck to a seal’s skull, the animal should be bled, but to save time, this is very often not done. The sealers say that following this regulation isn’t possible if the hunt is to be economically viable. So they lug the bodies onto the ship and, if the animals appear to be alive, they stun them again.’. No sealer has ever been prosecuted for this. ~

It may be difficult to understand why the Norwegian government, which works so hard to maintain the green hue that it got from the 1987 Brundtland Report on Environment and Development, continues to support groups with anti­ environmental politics, but clearly it has to do with trying not to widen the country’s historic north-south gap.

This division was revealed even at the beginning of modern whaling, after Sven Foyn invented the explosive harpoon in the 1880s. He and other southern ship­owners set up whaling stations along the coast of Finnmark – the northernmost country, the one that lies north of Sweden and Finland and borders on Russia. In 20 years they had hunted down every last whale – blue whales, fin whales and all the others – in the Barents Sea and in the waters between the Norwegian coast and Spitzbergen.

The first anti-whaling protests started there and then. The local fishermen claimed that, with the whales gone, there was no longer anything to chase the fish towards land, and no way that they – the fishermen – could go further out to sea in their tiny fishing boats. This coincided with the first invasions of harpseals along the coast, and the fishermen claimed that the seals would never have come if there had been any whales left.

Their arguments were ignored as superstition and their ensuing poverty was put down to inherent laziness. It was only in 1903, when the fishermen burnt down a whaling station that they were listened to. But by then there were no more big whales left in the Barents Sea. So the true winners were the southern exploiters, whom the government paid handsomely to take their business elsewhere ­which they did, to the detriment of the rest of the world’s big whales.

The image of Norway as a pristine wilderness managed by a level-headed race of people, is one that the government likes. With a government made famously ‘green’ by the Brundtland Report, there is a sense of complacency not only in Norwegian society but beyond its borders. Prime Minister Gro Harlem Brundtland has long dictated where environmentalism stops and ‘sentimentalism’ begins.

Within her wilderness there must be room for native traditions such as hunting seals and whales. That these views have the power to seduce the Norwegian public is not surprising, but it is downright worrying when leaders of other nations fall for the argument, ignoring as it does international guidelines on both ethics and the environment. Brundtland, like so many other politicians everywhere, puts political concerns before environmental commitments. Norway’s claim to ‘green’ politics will no more stand up to scrutiny than any other nation’s.

Brundtland’s support of sealing and whaling is nothing but an act. It covers upfor the fact that she, like so many before her, has swept the problems of northern Norway under the carpet. The Brundtland government has failed to create sustainable jobs in the north. It has continued along the path followed by many governments before, of exploiting natural resources to their utmost limits and beyond. Her show of support for traditional industries has the support of the nation because there is a shared sense of guilt for the neglect of that part of the country. Norwegian taxpayers seldom grumble at having to subsidize the north ­even when they pick up the bill for the expensive pro sealing and pro-whaling public relations exercises, such as sending international journalist, on all­ expenses-paid trips to the Lofoten Isles, to listen to the industry’s propaganda.

But what will happen if, through Norwegian pressure, the market reopens forseal and whale products again, and other nations move in for the kill? The ‘resources’ will run out as quickly as they did in the Barents Sea, and we will all be the poorer for it – not least the sealers- and whalers of northern Norway who have always been the victims of opportunistic and short-sighted politics.

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