Norwegian Minke Whaling: Killing Methods

by Breach Marine Protection UK

1998 Self Appointed Quota (opposed by the International Whaling Commission): 671 Whales

Penthrite Grenade Harpoon

The cold (non explosive grenade) harpoon was employed as the primary killing device in Norwegian commercial minke whaling operations until the development of a new type of harpoon, using a grenade head containing penthrite explosive. In January 1981, when faced with the imposition of the International Whaling Commission's (IWC) ban on the use of the cold harpoon for commercial minke whaling (at the start of the 1983 coastal season) due to consensus that it was unacceptably inhumane, the Norwegian minke whaling industry began a project to investigate and develop a "more effective and humane" killing method for its commercial operations.

After observation of the cold harpoon hunting technique, trials with high- velocity projectiles and modified cold harpoons, consideration of electrical harpoons, drugs and the Japanese penthrite grenade as alternatives to the cold harpoon, work on the Norwegian penthrite grenade harpoon began in 1983. Following field trials in 1983 with the first generation prototype penthrite grenades, the cold harpoon was banned by the Norwegian government; all gunners had to undergo a two-day training course in the use of the new explosive grenade; and the second generation penthrite grenades went into use during the 1984 commercial minke hunt. Even though there have been several modifications made to the grenade, the one used by Norwegian minke whalers today remains essentially the same. The following summary of killing data is drawn from the Norwegian government's and commercial whaling industry's own reports:

Norwegian commercial minke whaling 1984-1986, North Atlantic (Oen 1992b, Oen 1994)

Whales NOT killed instantaneously 55.2%
Average time to death 6 minutes 35 seconds
Longest recorded time to death 57 minutes
Whales, still alive after harpooning, and killed with rifle bullets 34.4%
Whales that had a second harpoon fired into them 4.3%
Harpooned whales that lived for more than 15 minutes 14.4%

Norwegian "scientific" minke whaling 1992, North Atlantic (Oen 1993)

Whales NOT killed instantaneously 49.5%
Average time to death 3 minutes 39 seconds
Longest recorded time to death nearly 32 minutes
Harpooned whales that lived for more than 15 minutes 4%

During 1993, in addition to its continued "scientific" whaling research programme, the Norwegian government sanctioned a unilateral resumption of commercial minke whaling in defiance of the IWC's moratorium and classification of the depleted Northeast Atlantic minke whale stock as "Protection Stock". With the eyes of the world upon them, and under strict Norwegian government inspection, the whalers made a determined effort to prove that hunting minke whales with explosive grenade harpoons could be done humanely. Yet the best they could achieve under these optimal conditions of inspection and regulation was:

Norwegian commercial & "scientific" whaling 1993, North Atlantic (Anon 1993, Oen 1994)

Whales NOT killed instantaneously 50%
Average time to death 3 minutes 33 seconds
Longest recorded time to death 55 minutes
Harpooned whales lived for more than 15 minutes 6%
Whales killed that were females "in calf", i.e. pregnant. 29%

The most recent killing data - from the 1995/1996 Norwegian minke whale hunt - proves that there has been little, if any, change. In addition to the data below, the master of one boat was reported to the police for "having taken one whale more than the quota allocated" (Anon 1994). This breach of regulations occurred after the vessel had taken its allocated quota and was on its way to deliver the catch. "The animal was taken while the inspector was on board. The licence-holder has admitted that the whale was 'harpooned and flensed while the inspector was asleep" (Anon 1994). This whale, together with one which was wounded by a "stray" harpoon shot, were not included in the total catch data of 279 whales:

Norwegian commercial & "scientific" whaling 1994, North Atlantic (Anon 1994)

Whales NOT killed instantaneously 44%
Average time to death 3 minutes 9 seconds
Longest recorded time to death 50 minutes
Harpooned whales that lived for more than 15 minutes 4%
Whales killed that were females "in calf", i.e. pregnant 28%

There has been no significant reduction in the average time to death in recent years, despite the claims of the Norwegian whaling industry that the weapons technology, gunnery training, hunting techniques, veterinary inspection and government regulation have been improved. On average, approximately half of all minke whales harpooned by Norwegian whalers suffer for over 3 minutes following a harpoon strike; many of which are only dispatched by being shot to death with rifle bullets (the Norwegian whaling industry's chosen secondary killing method).

A failed grenade is a Cold Grenade

The old blackpowder explosive grenade harpoons killed primarily by laceration caused by the shrapnel from the grenade casing; whereas the lethality of the cold harpoon was directly related to the damage the projectile caused to the organs and tissues it hit: "The killing effect and the crushing and damage that arises are due more to a direct hit in vital organs and damage from the wing-formed harpoon claws and fore-runner, than damage from the harpoon head. The cold harpoon therefore works more like a large arrow" (Oen 1992a). Veterinary scientists and pathologists, from both Japan and Norway, have maintained that upon detonation the penthrite explosive kills primarily by creating a supersonic shock wave which spreads instantaneously through a whale's body, destroying tissue and organ structure, leading to either instantaneous death or loss of consciousness. The wounding caused by the penetration of the harpoon and the fragmentation of the grenade casing may also cause instantaneous death or unconsciousness provided that the harpoon strikes a vital organ or the central nervous system (brain and spinal cord).

Comparison between Cold & Penthrite Harpoon

Statistical analysis (Oen 1992b) of Norwegian time to death data shows that the penthrite grenade causes a greater number of instantaneous kills (10 seconds or less) than does the cold harpoon; otherwise, there is no significant difference between the two weapons for times to death above 10 seconds. It has been shown that times to death exceeding 10 seconds are dependent on the whale's length and the range at which it was shot, and not the harpoon type; in other words, long ranges reduce accuracy and larger animals tolerate more physical damage than smaller animals.

During the 1994 hunt, there were four reports of grenades that failed to explode for unknown reasons. The times to death for these whales varied from instantaneous to 15 minutes. (Time to death: the time between harpoon impact and death or unconsciousness)

Is a functioning penthrite grenade humane anyway?

If a penthrite explosion within a whale's body was a guarantee of instantaneous death or unconsciousness, as is often claimed by the whaling industry, then why are the average times to death not less than 10 seconds? Why is the proportion of whales killed instantaneously never significantly greater than about half? Why does it continue to be necessary for the Norwegian minke whaling industry to employ a secondary killing method? It is because the penthrite grenade harpoon fails to inflict a guaranteed fatality. Few though they are, the killing data so far released by the Government of Norway prove that the penthrite grenade harpoon fails to kill instantaneously in the majority of cases, just like the cold harpoon. During Norwegian commercial minke whaling between 1984 and 1986, 55.2 per cent of the whales were not killed instantaneously; and during the 1994 Norwegian hunt the proportion - the best achieved so far - was 44 per cent.

The harpooned whale which is not killed instantly suffers from the pain inflicted by the penetration of the harpoon body, expanding claws, forerunner (harpoon line) and shrapnel fragments; and the disruption of tissues caused by the rapid expansion of gases during explosion. However, consideration is rarely given to the effect on a still conscious and struggling whale when it is winched in: the strain on the line increases the stress on, and damage to, the wound area, which must further increase the pain experienced by the whale. A significant proportion of penthrite grenade harpoon strikes kill very slowly. In this respect, the penthrite grenade harpoon is as (in)humane as any other harpoon. A great many potentially long and lingering deaths are only curtailed by use of a secondary killing method; without which, the times to death for many whales would extend into many tens of minutes or several hours.

Norwegian secondary killing method: the rifle bullet

Norwegian government guidelines require that a harpooned whale be rapidly winched in towards the boat for inspection and, if still alive, re-shot with a rifle or second harpoon (Oen 1993). Each harpoon costs the whalers money and hence profit. Therefore there is very little incentive for a whaler to use a second harpoon when he can use a much cheaper bullet or ten. The Norwegian whalers use a rifle with full-jacketed bullets, at least 9mm in calibre, to re-shoot whales. The Norwegian government and whaling industry have so far released very few details concerning the number of shots into the head of an injured whale it takes before death is inflicted. It is known from one study (Metveit 1992), which cites Norwegian whaling inspectors' reports, that of five whales killed by rifle fire, one was apparently killed by the first shot, two required four shots, one required eight shots and one required nine shots. In rough sea conditions, from a moving vessel, the chances of aiming at the whale's head and hitting the brain (therefore rapidly dispatching the wounded animal) are reduced, even for an experienced rifleman.

Complete Assessment

A complete assessment of the so-called humane killing procedure for minke whales should also, but rarely does, take into consideration:

Stress. Stress caused to the whale during the chase. No detailed data has yet been disclosed - by any present day whaling nation - concerning the "chase time" during which a whale, after being sighted, is chased by the catcher boat before being shot at. The chase obviously causes stress, fear and anxiety to the whale before it is injured or killed by the harpoon. The Norwegian government veterinary inspector's report on the 1994 minke whale hunt included that: "One inspector reported that a vessel had chased a whale for at least 6-7 hours" (Anon 1994).
Secondary suffering. The suffering also extends beyond the target whale. Minke whales are social mammals; they form small groups, sometimes family groups such as mother and child, sisters-aunts-grandmothers, and sometimes sexual maturity groups such as herds of adolescent males. The fear, the suffering, and the death of one whale is almost certainly conveyed to, and sensed by, the other whales within the group or in the immediate vicinity. This secondary suffering is also inhumane: it is the reason why abattoirs are supposed to separate the individual from the herd before it is slaughtered.
Pregnant whales. There are few available records concerning how many of the female whales are pregnant when killed during commercial whaling operations, apart from two recent disclosures by the Norwegian government. During the 1993 Norwegian minke whale hunt, 69 per cent of the female minke whales slaughtered during commercial whaling, and 39 per cent during "scientific" whaling, were "in calf". During the 1994 hunt, 68 per cent of the female minke whales killed during the commercial component, and 24 per cent during the "scientific", were "in calf". Therefore, from the total of 506 whales killed during the 1993 and 1994 hunts (including the one whale killed illegally), 143 were pregnant females. It is the opinion of Breach Marine Protection that the 143 unborn minke whale calves should be added to the total number of whales killed, as - biologically speaking - the whalers prevented a potential recruitment of 143 minke whales to the depleted Northeast Atlantic stock.
Injured but lost. The cases of whales injured by the harpoon and then lost when the fore- runner rope breaks or the harpoon pulls out. During Norwegian commercial whaling, 1984-1986, from a sample of 276 whales harpooned, seven (2.5%) were lost, three when the fore runner broke and four when the harpoon pulled out. During Norwegian "scientific" whaling in 1992, 3.2% were lost. The nine whales (4%) lost during the 1993 and the five (1.8%) lost during the 1994 Norwegian hunts were lost after killing.
The failure of crews to observe recommendations. In 1992 a maximum shooting range of 30m was recommended by Professor Lars Walloe, the head of Norway's Integrated Marine Mammal Programme (under which the so-called "scientific" whaling programme was conducted), in order to reduce the number of long times to death caused by gunnery inaccuracy. For the same reason it was also recommended that the whalers avoid shots from directly in front or behind a whale, as this presents the gunner with less chance to hit a fatal area of body. However, Norwegian government inspectors reported during both the 1992 and the 1993 seasons that shots were fired at whales at ranges of up to 70m, and that a significant proportion of whales were shot from in front or behind. During the 1994 Norwegian hunt, one animal "was wounded by a stray shot, but according to the inspector was not seriously injured." On four occasions during the 1994 hunt the recommendation to keep the rifle near the harpoon gun so that it can be used without delay, were ignored.
The failure of whalers to observe regulations. Apart from the infamous case of attempted smuggling of whale products in 1993, the Norwegian whalers have on occasion been caught breaking whaling regulations, and even national laws. During the 1994 minke whale hunt one inspector reported that he was refused access to the gun deck while whales were being hauled in, "for safety reasons." Two of the 28 boats participating "failed to keep the whaling log book up to date", resulting in their being reported to the police for contravention of regulations; it was also revealed that one of the vessels had illegally harpooned and flensed a minke whale on return to port whilst the inspector was fast asleep!
The difficulties of accurately determining time of death or unconsciousness. It is likely that there are cases when harpooned whales are declared dead or unconscious when in fact they are paralysed and still fully conscious.

The equivalent of .74 days of Continual Suffering... at least !

The Norwegian minke whaling industry is seeking an annual commercial catch quota of between 1,500 and 2,000 whales under the Revised Management Procedure (RMP), as soon as the Revised Management Scheme (RMS) is implemented by the IWC. They are more likely to receive an IWC-calculated quota of about 350 minke whales. If just 350 minke whales are killed annually in the Northeast Atlantic, that would amount to a total accumulated time to death (using the relatively conservative 1994 average time to death of 3 minutes 9 seconds) of approximately 1,100 minutes; that is 18.33 hours or equivalent to .74 days of continuous pain and suffering, harpoon injury and rifle fire, each season! And remember, the 1998 quota is 671 whales!

Things to come?

The following statement was included in the Norwegian whaling season Summary of Inspectors' Reports: "Some of the inspectors further proposed that the authorities should consider making it permissible to pump air into a whale's carcass once it is shown to be dead. This would help to keep the whale afloat and make the carcass easier to handle while it is being winched on board the boat." (Anon 1993)

Without effective observation and enforcement, and given that the determination of unconsciousness - let alone death - is notoriously difficult, there is the possibility that some whales would be inflated with compressed air whilst they are still alive and conscious.


What can YOU do to help turn the tide on Norwegian commercial minke whaling?

Communicate your feelings, give your opinion and ask some exacting questions concerning the intrinsically inhumane, economically unnecessary and scientifically unjustified whale slaughter by writing to the Norwegian Prime Minister at the address below:

  1. Say NO! to Norwegian goods. Economic sanctions really do concentrate the mind. e.g. demand to know from where those prawns came from, were they imported from Norway? Look out for 'Scotch Smoked Salmon', it may not be from Scotland!ÊIn the U.K., shop at ICELAND stores, unlike most supermarkets, they stopped buying Norwegian prawns some time ago in protest at Norway's whaling - good on you ICELAND. Where there is no label, ask your supermarket or store where their stocks came from: don't buy if they can't (or will not) tell you, then tell them why you will not buy it!
  2. Spread the word! Inform your friends, relatives and colleagues about the truth behind Norwegian whaling, and ask them to write letters to the above.
  3. Write a short, clear and well argued letter containing the facts. State your reasons for wanting whaling to cease (long times to death, cruelty etc.). Write the letter from yourself - a member of the public.
  4. No matter how you actually feel, be polite; abusing the recipient is always counter productive.
  5. Be personal; hand write the Dear ... "bit" and a postscript such as I look forward to your reply; sign with your full name. Build in an easily answered question; one that demands a prompt response. Send copies addressed to the other people listed below, letting each know that you have written to the others by adding "copied to ..." at the bottom. Your letter is likely to invoke a more serious response:
  6. For The Urgent Attention Of: The Prime Minister, Office of the Prime Minister, Akersgt. 42, PO Box 8001 Dep., 0030 Oslo 1. Norway. ["Dear Prime Minister,"]:
    King Harold 5th and Queen Sonja of Norway, The Royal Palace, Drammensveien No. 1, 0010 Oslo 1. Norway. ["Your Majesties,"]:
    In the UK: His Excellency Mr Kjell Eliassen G.C.M.G., Ambassador E & P, The Royal Norwegian Embassy, 25 Belgrave Square, London. SW1X 8QD ["Your Excellency,"]
  7. Sign-On to a World-Wide Sign-On Petition to help save threatened and endangered whales and dolphins, protect precious marine ecosystems and protest whale hunting.
  8. References

    Anon 1993 Results of the whaling season & The minke whaling season 1993 - summary of the inspectors" reports. Government of Norway.

    Anon 1994 Norwegian minke whaling 1994 & The minke whaling season 1994 - summary of inspectors" reports. Government of Norway.

    Best, P. 1974 Death-times for whales killed by explosive harpoons. SC/26/24. Metveit, T.B. 1992

    Report on key aspects of the theme commercial whaling, is it humane? IWC/44/HKW10 annex B. Oen, E.0. 1983

    Electrical whaling - a review. Nord. Vet. Med. 1983, 35, 319-323. Oen, E.O. 1992a

    The Norwegian hunt of minke whales.

    Hunting of minke whales with modified cold harpoons in 1983. Oen, E.O. 1992b

    Norwegian penthrite grenade for minke whales:
    Hunting trials with prototypes of penthrite grenades in 1984 and results from the 1984, 1985 and 1986 seasons. IWC/44/HKW5. Oen, E.O. 1993

    Hunting methods for minke whales in Norway.

    Report from the 1992 scientific catch. IWC/45/HK1. Oen, E.O. 1994

    Hunting methods for minke whales in Norway.

    Report from the 1993 scientific and traditional catch. IWC/46/HK1.

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