Science & Environment

Animal activists challenged on whale film 'scam'

Video footage (Image: WSPA)
Image caption Footage showing, campaigners say, a harpoon injuring a minke whale

Norwegian animal welfare organisations have been accused of misleading the public over the "cruelty" of whaling.

Activists recently released a video that they said showed a harpooned whale possibly taking two hours to die.

At the International Whaling Commission (IWC) meeting, the Norwegian delegation said the footage had been packaged in a way as to "misrepresent the facts".

The campaigners, who rejected the allegations, say they were considering their options on how to respond.

The film was shot in May in the Lofoten Islands off the northwestern coast of Norway, the heart of the nation's whaling industry.

Disputed footage

Most hunting is carried out in coastal waters by adapted fishing vessels, so campaigners were able to film from the shore.

The video reportedly shows a boat firing an explosive harpoon at a minke whale, which the video's commentary says occurred at 9.15pm local time.

The harpoon appears to land short of its target; but narrator Carl-Egil Mastad, director of the Norwegian Society for the Protection of Animals, says: "For the next 22 minutes we filmed the whaling vessel apparently pursuing the injured whale".

The boat then disappeared from sight behind a headland; but later, the film crew - the narrative adds - found it again.

"Then at 11.30(pm), we filmed the [boat] firing a second harpoon shot, resulting in a clear kill," Mr Mastad says in his commentary.

"It is possible that this was the same animal which had been struck earlier, meaning it suffered from horrific harpoon injuries for more than two hours before dying."

The Norwegian animal welfare group Noah (named after the Biblical ark story) raised the issue during a speech in the meeting here, raising the hackles of the Norwegian delegation.

Norway's IWC commissioner Karsten Klepsvik told BBC News the episode was a "scam".

Egil Ole Oen, a Norwegian veterinarian who has been instrumental in developing modern explosive harpoons designed to produce a faster and more humane kill, explained to the meeting why he believed the video was misleading.

Most importantly, he said, the whale was clearly not hit by the first harpoon, which landed "about 8-10 metres away"; so it was not suffering from injuries when the boat's crew found it again, even if it were the same animal.

The campaigners, he suggested, had edited the footage and chosen the commentary in order to further their agenda.

"Why are they doing it? It's important for them to find some example where a whale is hit and suffering to show to the public," he said.

"But this is rare in the Norwegian hunt. So... you make a film to fit your case, and this is what they have done."

However, Siri Martinsen from Noah said the groups stood by their film.

"We think the whale was probably hit, given the consultations we have had with independent veterinarians," she told BBC News.

"But whether we're right or whether the delegation is right, what the film illustrates is that under perfect weather conditions, an experienced whaler could not hit what he was aiming for.

"This confirms that you cannot reliably hit a moving target from a moving platform."

Asked whether they would consider legal action to justify their case, Ms Martinsen said the campaign groups involved were "discussing all options".

Indigenous gains

Elsewhere at the IWC meeting, for the fourth year in a row, Greenland (represented by Denmark) presented a request to add 10 humpback whales to its annual hunt, conducted under regulations whereby the IWC authorises hunts for indigenous peoples where a "nutritional and cultural need" has been identified.

"Whaling and our right to use humpback whales has also been an important part of our marine traditional food source from time immemorial and has been and is still an important resource along the large part of our coastline and is part of our cultural heritage," said Leif Fontaine, head of the Organisation of Fishermen and Hunters in Greenland (KNAPK).

While every country in the IWC says it respects the rights and needs of indigenous peoples, humpbacks are always controversial within this forum, largely because of their value in the whale-watching industry.

While the IWC's scientific committee had declared that an annual take of 10 was sustainable, other delegates said the Greenlanders had not presented evidence showing a need for the meat.

Environmental groups, which are usually cautious on subsistence whaling, highlighted Greenland's annual take of cetaceans not covered by the IWC's regulations, such as beluga and narwhal.

And the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society (WDCS) presented a report showing that whalemeat and the more highly-prized mattak - raw meat and blubber - is sold in supermarkets, four-star restaurants and cruise ships docking in Greenlandic ports, which they said demonstrated the meat was not a subsistence item.

This follows an investigation two years ago by the World Society for the Protection of Animals (WSPA), which came to similar conclusions.

WDCS also found evidence that harpooned whales, notably the large bowheads, were taking hours to die.

Despite these reservations, the IWC meeting, after a long and fairly acrimonious debate, approved an annual quota of nine humpbacks - but only on condition that the fin whale quota was lowered from 19 to 10.

This actually leaves the Greenlanders with less meat, as humpbacks are smaller than fin whales; but humpbacks are easier to process, and the outcome left the Greenlanders pleased.

More on this story

Related Internet links

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external Internet sites