Kabelvaag, Norway - north of the artic circle.
Photo - Chris Johnson
December 17, 2004
An Educational Visit to Loften, Norway
At this time of year, there is less than four hours of daylight in every twenty-four. By Christmas, all traces of light will disappear entirely.
This is the reality of living in the cold, harsh environment of Lofoten, Norway.
While the Odyssey makes its way to the Canary Islands in the Atlantic Ocean, the Ocean Alliance media and education team was invited by Heike Vestor,
a researcher working at the Lofoten Aquarium in Kabelvaag, Norway, to give multimedia education presentations to local students, teachers and community members.
Lofoten's population of 24,500 people are scattered across a remote group of islands spanning the 67th and 68th latitudes north of the Arctic Circle.
Oil and gas, tourism and increasingly, whale watching drive the local economy, but for many, fisheries remain the center of these small communities,
which includes whaling; 600-700 Minke whales are killed here each year.
The majority of the local community is exceptionally defensive when it comes to the Minke whale hunt and most insist it is a matter
of culture and an important tradition that binds the community. We did not come to Norway with confrontation in mind, but we do hope to
inspire people to want to protect whales and understand the long-term threats to their survival, including the importance of preserving the marine environment.
While the Odyssey makes its way to the Canary Islands in the Atlantic Ocean,
the Ocean Alliance media and education team was invited by the Lofoten Aquarium in Kabelvaag, Norway to give
multimedia education presentations to local students, teachers and community members.
Photo - Chris Johnson
Exposure to marine environmental education in schools is minimal here. Over a four-day period we gave 7 presentations, each discussing
the Voyage of the Odyssey, our research, whales around the world and human impacts on whales and the marine environment.
The one-hour sessions were followed by 20-minute question and answer periods. The overall response was positive and students eagerly shared what they
learned with comments like -
"Sperm whales are natural deep-sea divers. They can easily go down to about 2000-2500 meters below the surface!"
"Sperm whales have the biggest nose in the animal kingdom."
"Humpback-whales sing songs to attract females and sperm-whales are the largest toothed whales."
The students also expressed their concern at learning about the threats to whales -
"One thing I didn't know was that there is so much pollution in the sea and that kills the whales."
"Plastic and fishing gear are some the deadliest threats to the whales. This I did not know before."
Only a very small part of the presentation was about whaling - however, this subject generated the most animated responses.
Some students cited whaling as a problem, others adamantly defended whaling as an integral part of their countries culture.
Exposure to marine environmental education in schools is minimal here. Over a four-day period we gave
7 presentations, each discussing the Voyage of the Odyssey, our research,
whales around the world and human impacts on whales and the marine environment.
Photo - Chris Johnson
"I think whaling is an important part of Norwegian history (although I really think it should be history). In the past people did this to get food, but now I believe it is quite unnecessary with whaling."
"We are earning money on the whale meat"
"Whaling IS an important part of Norwegian history and culture; however, I do not believe it is important now. It was perhaps important a hundred years ago but now that we don't need the meat anymore, why catch whales? "
"We have our traditions. In china they eat dogs and turtles. Why not stop them? We just kill the whales that we have lots of; you cannot compare it with how they do it in other places. We don't kill the whales because they eat a lot of fish, we kill it for the meat, and we have lots of them in the ocean.
Today, Norway kills Minke whales under a quota system controlled by the Government, specifically the Norwegian Ministry of Fisheries.
Norway is not a member of the International Whaling Commission (IWC) and is therefore not subject to its regulations. Norway claims their hunt is small-scale and traditional, and an important component of the national diet.
In their defence of whaling as a tradition, teachers and students asked me why Norway shouldn't hunt whales when it is part of their culture and the number taken is sustainable? I explained that my views on whaling differ from theirs and that I don't believe the hunt is traditional or sustainable. I pointed out that whale meat is not necessary to sustain the community - the local supermarkets and fast food outlets do a great job of that. Norway only began Minke whaling in 1930 and although sold in local supermarkets, in 2004, there is little market for whale products. In fact much of the meat and blubber is frozen and stockpiled.
A World Wildlife Fund (WWF) analysis of whale meat samples purchased in Norwegian markets in 1999 turned up more than 50 PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls),
including some chemicals that cause hormonal imbalance.
Genevieve with three students from Lofoten.
Photo - Chris Johnson
"If people regularly consume quantities of contaminated whale meat or blubber, they could be putting themselves and their children at risk," said Gordon Shepherd,
WWF's director of international treaties. "What is more worrying is the long-term exposure to these chemicals and how they may cause an increase in cancer,
affect the immune system and reduce sperm counts."
Interestingly, the findings were below the tolerable daily intake limit set by the Norwegian government.
I went on to point out the ultimate goal of Norwegian Fisheries, which is to export surplus meat and blubber to Japan where prices paid are several times higher. The Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) currently lists all the great whales on its Appendix I, under which the international trade in whale products are prohibited. Japan and Norway are both lobbying aggressively, to down list whales from Appendix I to Appendix II, thereby reopening trade. They have so far been unsuccessful, but are intensifying their efforts. Meanwhile, according to the recently published report by the Ministry of Fisheries entitled
Norway's Policy on Marine Mammals 2004 - Norway is pressing its own government for an increased quota and permission to hunt other species in the future.
Such information reveals this so-called 'traditional' whaling as 'commercial'. Interestingly, I did not meet a single student or local who seemed evenly vaguely aware of such issues.
Unfortunately this isolated community is exposed almost exclusively to government perspective. The Norwegian Ministry of Fisheries argues that another good reason to allow whaling is to aid the balance in the food chain. A government spokesman says:
"Whales, of which there are approximately 75 species, are a part of the marine ecosystem. They either eat fish or they compete with fish for their food. Most whales need to eat the equivalent of approximately five per cent of their body weight every day." The Minke whale eats up to 200kg of fish a day. "Over-harvesting any species is undesirable, but to achieve an optimum balance in the food chain, the whale species which occur in large enough numbers should be harvested".
The following statement can be read on the Norwegian Ministry of Fisheries website -
"Whale meat has been a part of the daily diet for over 1,000 years. It tastes delicious and is very healthy. Recent research indicates that the oil in whale meet and blubber contains substances which have a preventive effect on cardiovascular diseases, among others".
Informing students about whales and the threats they face is the primary reason we accepted the invitation to talk in Lofoten. It is imperative to raise awareness about the facts, enabling individuals to make responsible and informed choices.
We also discussed whale watching as a long-term, sustainable economic alternative to whaling. According to Eric Hoyt, author of the report for the International Fund for Animal
Welfare (IFAW) entitled - Whale Watching 2001 - Worldwide Tourism Numbers, Expenditures, and Expanding Socioeconomic Benefits - he notes that whale-watching is
becoming an important part of tourism for Norway.
Norway is already demonstrating outstanding potential as a tourist destination for whale watchers.
Whale watching continues to grow steadily, with an average 18.8% increase between 1994 and 1998 and an annual revenue of over 12 million dollars.
Whale meat (hvalbiff) can be found on sale in most local supermarkets in Lofoten.
600 - 700 Minke whales are killed in Norway every year in what the locals term a traditional hunt.
Photo courtesy of Heike Vester
Dr. Roger Payne, Founder and President of the Ocean Alliance notes -
"It is no longer a matter of conjecture, it is a clear fact that people are quicker to spend money to begin watching whales than they are to spend money to begin eating whales."
We were fortunate enough to participate in an orca watch trip in the fjords of Lofoten and can attest that whale watching in Norway is truly stunning. We left Kabelvaag at 7am, making our way out into the deep channel of the fjord. The full moon high and bright, the sky a pink and purple tapestry hanging above endless snow covered mountain peaks. By 9am the first glimpse of sunlight appeared and in two hours we were with killer whales, 20 - 30 had gathered in one area to feed. We climbed into a zodiac, the weather proof suits doing a reasonable job of warding off the -10c air temperature. The whales were spectacular and the backdrop made the scene impossibly beautiful - We see thousands of whales in an array of environments, but this was an entirely new experience for the Odyssey team.
Talking about 'what you can do to help' is always the most important part of our discussions with students.
Before leaving, we asked some students what they think they can do to help protect whales and the marine environment.
This is just a sample of what they said -
"We can choose not to be whalers."
"Children are the new generation, so we can help the whales by trying to build up a society with less pollution, especially in the ocean. Too many animals die because of pollution."
"They can start by picking up their garbage, and use paper bags."
"We can educate our parents, the older generation, and also children has a more powerful way of getting attention from politicians, and people with power."
"By learning the consequences of their actions. Such as polluting our environment etc..."
Visiting Norway and talking with students was a fantastic opportunity for the Ocean Alliance education and media team and hopefully for the children we spoke with. It is our first visit to a whaling country.
What was most evident from interacting with students was their lack of awareness about the marine environment, pollution, fisheries, whales, and the underlying support for the whaling industry. Many students are brought up to believe whaling is cultural, a healthy food source and an essential mainstay of the local diet.
Students have no knowledge of persistent organic pollutants (POPs) in whales, the killing methods used in whaling and the fact that Norway is trying to downgrade Minke whales in order to initiate a long-term commercial trade with Japan.
Responses by the students indicated they listened, processed and thought about information expressed in the presentation, demonstrating a high level of reflection about the issues discussed and their applications to their lifestyle. Anne Gerd Lind, an upper secondary school teacher expresses her opinion -
"My students response to your lecture was fantastic - they were so delighted to meet scientists in person.
Even though they now have experienced a virtual contact with our Mar-Eco scientists [a online science education program participated by Slovaer Upper Secondary School students] , the time with you gave them an extra push into this fantastic world.
The work you do by travelling around and giving students/pupils the direct contact with your work is the most valuable way of public outreach of scientific work and,
a fantastic way of influencing our coming decision makers (our young students of today) to acquire the best understanding of marine life.
Reading books, visiting the web and virtual contact are all good resources, but the direct personal contact you offer us, is far more influential."
Anne Gerd Lind - Teacher
Svolvaer Upper Secondary School - Norway
It is interesting to note that most students had either never seen a whale, or if they had, it was an experience that made a lasting impression.
The focus on whale watching as an economic alternative to whaling made sense to many students who had been whale watching, although there is currently no educational
link between the whale watch operators in Tysfjord and local schools. Education about whales and the continued promotion of the already flourishing whale watch
industry and associated tourism in the area may be the greatest hope for the long-term conservation of whales in Norway.
The local newspaper in Lofoten
published a story about 'whale education days' in Lofoten.
Photo - Chris Johnson
"I would love to continue the work with Ocean Alliance because it brings information closer to Lofoten from all over the world.
It already changed some of children's way of thinking about whales (not only as a beef on their plate) and their marine environment -
especially plastic pollution and fishing nets..."
Heike Vester - Biologist, Lofoten Aquarium, Norway.
- Hoyt, E. Whale Watching 2001 -Worldwide Tourism Numbers, Expenditures, and
Expanding Socioeconomic Benefits.
A special report for the
International Fund for Animal Welfare (2001)
- World Wildlife Fund - Whale Watching in the Artic.
WWF Arctic Programme
- Norwegian Ministry of Fisheries and Coastal Affairs. Website.
Editor: Bjarne Myrstad
- Lofoten Bureau of Tourism
- International Fund for Animal Welfare - website
Log written by Genevieve Johnson.