This Country Is Trying To Make Eating Whale Meat 'Trendy'

They're promoting it at festivals and restaurants as a "cool" new dish.

Each year, Norwegian hunters kill hundreds of minke whales with harpoons, allowing them to die slow, painful deaths. The reason for hunting them is to sell the whales’ meat, yet very few people in Norway choose to eat whale meat anymore. But instead of killing fewer whales, the Norwegian government is doing something controversial — it’s trying to make eating whale meat “trendy.”

It’s actually illegal to kill whales for commercial purposes, and it has been since 1986 when the International Whaling Commission (IWC) placed a global moratorium on commercial whaling. Yet Norway — as well as other countries like Iceland and Japan — have ignored the ban and continued killing whales, despite international outcry.

Last year, Norway aimed to hunt 999 minke whales, and ended up killing 432. This year’s quota was raised to 1,278, but only about 163 whales have been killed so far, according to Fabienne McLellan, codirector of international relations at OceanCare.

Even if the Norwegian hunters don’t meet their quota this year, it’s unlikely that they’ll be able to sell all of the whale meat. Right now, fewer than 5 percent of Norwegians regularly consume whale meat, according to a recent study. The lack of demand has brought in very little money to the Norwegian whaling industry, and the whaling programs are heavily subsidized by the Norwegian government, according to McLellan. As as result, the Norwegian government is doing everything it can to encourage people to eat more whale meat.

“For several years now, Norway has been attempting to re-brand whale meat away from something associated with the older generation, and more commonly associated with coastal fishing communities, to something which has an increased appeal to younger people and can be sold in trendy restaurants in towns and cities,” McLellan told The Dodo. “The Norwegian government has directed public funds into research and promotional initiatives aiming to increase the market for whale products.”

Whale meat is now being marketed as something “cool” to eat, according to McLellan.

“Previously you might have only come across whale meat in the form of a rather unappetizing chunk of dark meat hidden in the back of a supermarket freezer counter or in a restaurant frequented by locals, prepared in a traditional way, as a ‘steak’ served with potatoes,” McLellan said. “However, now we are starting to see the reappearance of whale meat in various different forms, such as whale meat burgers and whale meat skewers, accompanied by exotic condiments and sourdough bread, sold in trendy restaurants, music festivals or street market stalls, catering for a younger client base and tourists and alongside craft beers and cocktails.”

In some ways, the marketing is doing its trick. Type in the hashtag #whalemeat on Instagram, and you’ll find plenty of photos of young people and tourists eating whale meat in Norway, as well as in Iceland and Japan.

But for the most part, the Norwegian government’s efforts have flopped, according to McLellan.

“Around 60 tons of minke whale meat donated by Myklebust Hvalprodukter, one of the country’s largest whale meat processors and exporters, were given away to distribute among the poor,” McLellan said. “Also, in the same month, we have learned that, in an apparent effort to boost sales, the supermarket chain SPAR offers whale meat as a sale product.”

The Norwegian government is also feeding whale meat to minks and foxes on fur farms, according to McLellan. In 2014 alone, more than 113 metric tons of whale meat (equivalent to about 75 minke whales) were fed to minks and foxes bred on Norwegian fur farms because there wasn’t much else to do with it.

Not only are Norwegians less interested in eating whales now, but a growing number of people are becoming aware of the ethical issues of killing whales for their meat.

“The whales are killed with explosive harpoons that are meant to detonate in the whale’s brain, which should kill the whales instantly,” McLellan said. “However, in many instances, something goes wrong and it takes much longer for a whale to die, sometimes more than 14 minutes, and in one case, even several horrendous hours.”

Minke whale harpooned in water
A minke whale struggling after being harpooned by a Norwegian hunter | Michael Tenten/IMMCS

There are also conservation concerns around killing whales. Minke whales, and other kinds of cetaceans, are generally slow to breed, and they only have one baby at a time, McLellan explained. So taking adult whales out of the marine ecosystem can have hugely negative effects on whale populations. What’s more, many of the whales who are killed during these hunts are pregnant females.

Whale meat is also high in mercury and other contaminating substances, which makes it a very unhealthy food to eat, according to McLellan.

Dead minke whale
A dead minke whale on a Norwegian whaling ship | Michael Tenten/IMMCS

Paul Watson, founder of Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, an organization that actively opposes the killing of whales, believes the Norwegian whaling program should be retired.

“We should be looking to protect whales in the ocean everywhere,” Watson told The Dodo. “There’s no real reason why we have to kill them.”

Until that happens, Watson suggests avoiding tourism to Norway and other countries that have active whaling programs, and not buying goods from these countries.

Whale meat for sale in Norway
Whale meat for sale in Norway | Michael Tenten/IMMCS

“Make it clear to Norway that you’re not happy about it,” Watson said. “Boycott the cruise lines into Scandinavia. Boycott the Norwegian and Icelandic goods ... I think the best thing is just to make it clear to the Norwegians and Icelanders that this is not something that people in the rest of the world support.”

But if you do have plans to travel to Norway or another whaling nation, you can still help by choosing not to buy whale meat.

“As a tourist, you have a power to make a difference by refraining from buying whale meat and other whale products (including souvenirs) and make your opinion heard,” McLellan said.

To help stop whaling in Norway and other places around the world, you can make a donation to OceanCare or Sea Shepherd Global.