The North Atlantic Marine Mammal Commission


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Hunting methods

The text under this item is extracted and slightly modified from the report of the NAMMCO Expert Group Meeting on Assessment of Whale Killing Data, which met in February 2010 (NAMMCO 2010b). Information on the Greenlandic hunts are also extracted from the Report on Greenlandic Conversion Factors (IWC 2010b).

People's right to hunt and utilise marine mammals is a firmly established principle in NAMMCO, and hunting conditions and techniques have always been priority issues. Embedded in this right is also an obligation to conduct the hunt in a sustainable way and in such a way that animal suffering is minimized.

Hunting methods depend on the species (size, behaviour) and the habitat. In the North Atlantic, fin whales are currently hunted by two NAMMCO countries, Greenland and Iceland. For animal welfare reasons it is important to achieve a rapid and efficient kill of the targeted whale. This means that both unnecessary suffering and the risk of losing the animal should be minimized. Ideally the animal should become instantly unconscious and insensitive to pain. 

Hunting methods for fin whales differ between Greenland and Iceland, but harpoon guns with explosive penthrite grenades are used in both countries.

Harpoon guns as hunting method

A harpoon cannon rigged into the deck of a boat is used to fire a harpoon equipped with an explosive grenade into the body of the whale. The triggering cord is a string with one end attached to the detonator and the other end attached to a small hook. This hook anchors itself to the skin of the whale and, as the harpoon penetrates the body of the whale, the triggering cord unfolds until it tenses and initiates the detonation of the grenade. This way, the grenade explodes deep inside the body of the whale.

The harpoon is attached to a forerunner, which is in turn attached to a winch in the boat. This kind of whaling requires a boat large enough to carry a harpoon cannon. In Greenland, the minimum boat length required for installing a harpoon cannon is 10 m. At the other end of the spectrum, ocean-going vessels 100 m long are used by Japan for whaling offshore and in the Antarctic.


Fin whale hunting is conducted from medium-sized boats that are exclusively used for whale hunting, but are not equipped for flensing the whale nor processing and storing meat and blubber. The hunting grounds are within Iceland’s 200 miles exclusive economic zone ( EEZ), and the whales are towed to the Icelandic land station for flensing and processing.

For the meat to be accepted as edible for human consumption, the whale has to be flensed at the whaling station within 16 hours after its death. Whaling areas shall therefore be close enough to allow the return of the boat in less than 16 hours. In the past, vessels used to tow up to four whales along the side. Nowadays, the vessels only tow up to two whales, both on one side as in the picture below or one on each side.

The boats are equipped with strong winches for hauling the whales, which can load up to 30 tonnes. The hunting weapon used is a 90 mm harpoon gun with 4-claws. Prior to 2009, cast iron grenades filled with black powder (500g) together with (from 1986 on) a modified penthrite grenade with 100g of penthrite fuse were used to kill the whales.

When Iceland resumed fin whale hunting in 2009, a prototype of a modified penthrite grenade with 100 g of pressed penthrite was developed and tested. This prototype which was made of aluminium was lighter than the previous grenades. However, it showed some weaknesses with the head design and the trigger hooks and was replaced by a new prototype penthrite grenade made of steel (Proto 2) in 2010. The back-up weapon is reshooting with a harpoon grenade.

MRI whaling vessel with2FW

 Icelandic fin-whaling vessel returning to the whaling station, with two fin whale being taught on tribord Photo: Marine Research Institute


Fin whales are caught in West Greenland, south from Uummannaq, either by two boats each of a minimum length of 9 m working together, or by one boat of a minimum length of 11 m. After the whale is caught, the boats return to land for flensing. Each boat is equipped with one certified harpoon cannon, which is checked every other year.

Fin whales are hunted with 50 mm Kongsberg harpoon guns using harpoons equipped with the Norwegian penthrite grenade (Grenade-99) charged with 30 g of pressed penthrite. The trigger rope for the fin whale grenade is 110 cm (longer than that for minke whales which is 45 cm) and it detonates the grenade 130-140 cm after penetration into the whale body (65 cm for the minke whale). The secondary (back up) weapon is the same as the primary weapon. The gunners shoot in the heart and lung regions by aiming at the area in front of the pectoral fins. During the years 2001 to 2008 it was reported that 20 % of the whales died instantaneously or within 1 minute, and that 40 – 50 % died within 5 minutes.

Flensing sites Greenland Assaqutak L Flensing sites Greenland Oqaatsut L
Flensing sites Greenland Saqqap Avannaatunga L
Types of flensing sites in Greenland: Top left, slope in sheltered inlet – Assaqutak near Sisimiut; Top right: slope with winches in sheltered inlet – Oqaatsut near Ilulissat; Bottom left, ‘island’ - Saqqap Avannaatunga near Sisimiut; (IWC, 2010b)