The North Atlantic Marine Mammal Commission


Upcoming events:


Hunting and Utilisation

Whaling has been conducted in the North Atlantic for thousands of years. However, directed hunting for common minke whales is relatively recent (Kalland 1995, Sigurjónsson 1997). Common minke whaling developed in the 20th century in Norway, Iceland, Greenland and Canada, and has been primarily carried out on a small scale by fishermen from small vessels, as a supplement to their fishing activity. The main product from the common minke whale harvest has always been meat for human consumption. At present common minke whaling is carried out by only three countries in the North Atlantic: Norway, Iceland and Greenland.


The Norwegian catch is taken primarily from the Northeastern stock area, but a small proportion is taken from the Central stock area around Jan Mayen. Norway also took common minke whales in the West Greenland stock area until 1986. Harvests approached 2000 whales annually before 1986, the year in which the IWC moratorium on commercial whaling took effect. Although Norway held a reservation to this decision and was not legally bound by it, it nevertheless temporarily ceased commercial whaling from 1988 to 1992, a period in which only scientific research whaling was permitted. In 1993 Norway resumed commercial whaling. Recent harvests have been in the range of 500 to 600 annually.

Whales are hunted from small (ca 50 ft) fishing vessels which are equipped for whaling in the spring and summer but fish the remainder of the year. The vessels are equipped with 50 mm or 60 mm harpoon cannons that use a gunpowder charge to fire the harpoon. The harpoons are of the “hot” type, tipped with explosive grenades loaded with 30 g of penthrite explosive. This grenade is triggered to detonate inside the whale. A line attached to the harpoon head secures the whale and prevents loss, and a winch is used to haul the animal to the boat (NAMMCO 2011a).

Norway hunting Norwegian common minke whaling with a harpoon cannon and explosive harpoon head. Photo: T. Haug, Institute of Marine Research, Norway.

The harpooner generally shoots the whale from the side and aims for the thorax region. A large calibre rifle is used as a secondary killing method if required. This is usually not necessary: the “instantaneous death rate” from the harpoon shot alone was over 80% in 1,667 hunts monitored between 2000 and 2002 (NAMMCO 2011a). Most of the remainder died within a few minutes, and a small proportion had to be re-shot with the harpoon gun or despatched with a rifle shot to the brain.

Once the whale is secured it is flensed onboard the vessel. Meat and other products are first cooled in the open air then stored on ice until the vessel returns to port.

Norway Minke flensing B T Forberg IMR Flensing of a minke whale onboard a Norwegian vessel (1994). Photo: B.T. Forberg, Institute of Marine Research, Norway.

Norway used to export large amounts of whale meat and blubber, primarily to Japan, but this trade ceased in 1983 when the Committee on the International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) agreed to a trade ban on whale products. While Norway held a reservation on this decision, it nevertheless voluntarily stopped exporting whale products. In 2001, Norway granted permission for export sales to resume, but there has been little international trade since that time. Virtually all whale products are consumed within Norway. The meat is sold fresh or frozen in grocery stores, butcher shops and fish boutiques throughout Norway, and is also commonly offered in restaurants. Some is processed into products such as sausage and burger.


Whaling has been carried out in Iceland since medieval times. Whales of various species were harpooned, speared and/or driven ashore, and natural strandings were also utilized for food if they were fresh enough. Indeed, the Icelandic word for a stranded whale, hvalreki, today is synonymous with an extremely fortunate event, or “godsend” (Sigurjónsson 1989). Modern whaling began in the late 1800’s, but this was targeted mainly at the larger blue and fin whales. Common minke whaling began early in the 20th century and was carried out by fishermen as a seasonal occupation. Initially, the catch of common minke whales was small and consumed domestically, averaging about 50 annually before 1950 (Sigurjónsson 1989). Gradually, the export market, primarily to Japan, became more important and harvest increased to around 200 annually by 1986, when whaling was discontinued in conformity with the IWC moratorium on commercial whaling which took effect that year. Common minke whaling resumed in 2003 under Scientific Permit and commercial whaling was resumed in 2006. Recent commercial harvests have ranged between 40 and 80 whales annually. The Icelandic catch of common minke whales is taken by vessels operating in coastal waters, from the CIC small area of the Central Stock.

Common minke whaling in Iceland is carried by small fishing vessels using harpoon cannons with exploding penthrite grenades; methods identical to those used in Norway. The catch is processed at sea as in Norway.

MRI IMG 0001 Minke whaling IcelandMinke whaler readying the harpoon gun. Photo: G. Vikingsson, Marine Research Institute, Iceland.

To date the hunt has not been monitored to collect time-to-death data, but the efficiency of the hunt is assumed to be similar to that in Norway (NAMMCO 2011a).

Since common minke whaling resumed in 2003, all common minke whale products have been consumed within Iceland. Whale meat was once a common staple in Iceland but became largely unavailable after the cessation of whaling in 1986. Whale meat is now available at butcher shops, supermarkets and restaurants throughout the country and is prepared and consumed much like any other meat. A particular delicacy in Iceland is made from the ventral groove blubber pickled in sour milk (Hvalrengi). This preservation method using lactic acid derived from milk (súrmattur) is unique to Iceland and the foundation of many traditional Icelandic dishes (Sigurgeirsson 2001).

MRI hrefnubatur hrefna2006 1 DO Wboat vIcelandic minke whaling. Photo: Marine Research Institute, Iceland.


The Greenlandic catch is taken primarily from the West Greenland stock area, but a small proportion is taken by East Greenlanders from the Central stock area. Catches have been relatively stable over the past 10 years, ranging from 140 to 200 whales for all of Greenland. Whaling in Greenland was not affected by the IWC moratorium on commercial whaling, as the hunt in Greenland is considered to be “Aboriginal Subsistence”, rather than commercial whaling.

Whales are hunted for the most part using methods similar to those used in Norway. Between 40 and 50 vessels in Greenland are equipped with harpoon cannons, hunting common minke and larger whales (Greenland 2012). However, about 20% to 30% of the quota is taken by small boats in a collective rifle hunt. This type of hunting is done primarily in isolated communities which lack vessels equipped with harpoon cannons, such as those north of Disko Bay and in East Greenland. Generally five or more small boats and crews participate in such hunts. The hunters first fire into the water to drive the whale towards shallow water, where it can more easily be retrieved. Once the whale is in a suitable area, it is shot non-lethally to slow it down enough so that the hunters may approach closely enough to harpoon it. As soon as possible, the whale is secured with harpoons attached by lines to large floats. When a sufficient number of floats are attached to prevent the whale from sinking, it is killed with rifle shots to the brain (Larsen and Hansen 1997, NAMMCO 2011a).

Whales killed in the collective hunts are towed to shore and butchered on the beach. This is also done by some vessels participating in the harpoon cannon hunt if they are not equipped for onboard processing.


Humm1Collective common minke whale hunt in Greenland. Photo: F. Sejersen


Onshore processing of common minke whale in Greenland. Photo: F. Sejersen

Time to death of whales taken in the harpoon gun hunt appear to be somewhat higher than that achieved in Norway. During the years 2007 to 2011, median times to death were 1 to 5 minutes and 20% of the whales died instantaneously or within 1 minute; this contrasts with the instantaneous death rate of 80% in the Norwegian hunt (Greenland 2012, NAMMCO 2011a). The reasons for this are not clear but may include differences in monitoring methods, inferior weaponry and a lack of training for hunters. The struck-and-lost rate for this hunt during the same period was just 1% (Greenland 2012).

In the collective hunts, only a small proportion of the whales are killed instantly or quickly, and the median time to death ranged from 20 to 25 minutes (Greenland 2012). This is integral in the nature of the hunt as the whale must be secured with several harpoons before it is killed to prevent loss. This is a feature of many marine mammal hunts where the need to secure the animal and prevent struck-and-loss must be balanced against the ideal of an instantaneous kill (NAMMCO 2007). The struck-and-lost rate for this hunt averaged 6% from 2007 to 2011 (Greenland 2012).

In Greenland, the meat of the common minke whale is a welcome food. The skin and subcutaneous fat, called mattak, is also consumed. The ventral grooves (Greenlandic qiporaq) are considered a particular delicacy. The baleen and bones are sometimes used for carving and other crafts. Consumption of minke whale meat in Greenland over the past several years has been roughly 340 tonnes annually, making the minke whale hunt the largest source of whale meat in Greenland (Greenland 2012).

Historically, the catch of common minke whales or other large animal was divided and shared among participating hunters and their extended families according to complex traditional rules (Inuktitut ningiqtuq, Greenlandic ningerpoq) that helped to ensure that the entire camp or community received a portion of the catch (Wenzel 1995, Sejersen 2001). However in the case of common minke and other large whales, sales for cash are very important in maintaining the hunt. Operating a whaler equipped with a harpoon cannon can be very expensive: the cannon alone might cost US $60,000 and each grenade costs as much as US $1,500 (Greenland 2012), and fuel is very expensive in Greenland. Therefore, some portion of the catch is sold in the open-air markets (Greenlandic Kalaalimineerniarfik, Danish brædtet) present in every village and town, and in supermarkets and restaurants. As well as providing needed income for hunters, this also supplies meat to areas in Greenland that cannot access a sufficient supply locally.