Tromsø says goodbye to the seal hunt, a long-lasting local tradition
Bjørne Kvernmo's seal hunting ship, the "Havsel," sailing through rough waters in the Barents Sea. (Photo: Bjørne Kvernmo)
When Bjørne Kvernmo docked his ship, “Havsel,” at the port in Tromsø this month, he knew it would be the end of a tradition he’s kept up for 40 years. With his return, northern Norway’s long-standing seal hunt had finally come to a close.
At the port, a crowd waited for Kvernmo and his crew. They wanted to snatch up a piece of Tromsø’s last seal catch.
“When we arrived in Tromsø, people attacked us… people wanted to buy the seal meat, pick and take at any price,” Kvernmo said. “We didn’t have enough meat.”
Kvernmo’s ship was the only seal-hunting vessel to sail out of Tromsø this year. Since Norway’s parliament axed a 12 million kroner (€1,42 million) subsidy to the seal hunt from the 2015 budget last December, the few remaining seal hunters in northern Norway had called it quits. But Kvernmo decided to go on one final hunt.
“I went out this year, I think out of old tradition and inspiration,” Kvernmo said. “It’s… not possible to keep going.. There’s no more value in the hunt, it’s no longer a good price for seal skin… it’s just not possible anymore.”
Times have changed
Since Tromsø was established as the “Gateway to the Arctic” in the late 1800s, the city has been the centre for seal hunting expeditions in northern Norway. Kvernmo said when he went on his first seal hunt back in 1973, he was on one of about 30 boats leaving Tromsø.
But the controversial hunt has steadily lost popularity since then. In 2010, the EU banned the seal product trade from Norway into Europe.
Subsidies have kept the seal industry alive, making up about 80 per cent of the revenue for seal hunters. Now, that revenue is gone, and the industry is no longer viable.
Jan Bremner Klev, a local restaurant owner in Tromsø, said his restaurant has served seal since it opened in 1985. The restaurant, Skarven, offers locals and tourists the opportunity to taste cultural Arctic food, including seal lasagna and steak of whale. If there is no more local seal meat available, he said, he will have to take seal off the menu.
“It’s not a number one seller for us. There are other things on the menu we sell far more than the seal meat,” Klev said. But he said it would be a shame if he can no longer offer it. “It’s a thing we’ve done for several years. It’s part of the culture.”
More seals could mean less fish
Klev also said the end of the seal hunt could be a problem for commercial fish stocks.
“I just know that if there’s too much seal in the ocean, there will be less fish, because all the seals need food as well… and there’s lots of them,” he said.
He isn’t the only local wondering whether the end of the seal hunt could harm fisheries along Norway’s coast.
“The seals eat a lot of food in the ocean, and… they eat the same as cod so they’re always in competition,” Kvernmo said. “Fishermen have many questions about this… the seal numbers going up and then eating more fish again.”
There is competition between cod and harp seals, said Ulf Lindstrøm, a scientist at Tromsø’s Institute of Marine Research. But he doesn’t worry about the seal population growing too much and hurting fisheries.
“These animals don’t have that potential growth that you have in other species,” Lindstrøm said. “Marine mammals, they get one pup, so it’s not like it just will explode. It takes time to build up the stock.”
Not much hope for Tromsø’s seal hunt
As for sealing, Lindstrøm doubts there will be a big hunt in Tromsø’s future again. “I think the society will prevent that. There’s a lot of organizations who are against it, so I can’t see that coming.”
The International Fund for Animal Welfare, Greenpeace and other organizations have protested the seal hunt for decades, often posting gruesome images of fluffy seals being clubbed to death with wooden bats or poles.
The rest of the world tells Norway it’s very bad to catch and eat seals, Klev said. “But they still catch tuna fish… and if you watch how they kill the tuna fish… they would never say anything about the whales and the seal hunting again.”
Kvernmo has spent his whole life perfecting his hunting technique, and said he almost never misses a seal that he’s aiming for.
“We don’t use clubs or bats,” Kvernmo said, “We shoot them with rifles usually from the boat or the ice… it’s like any other hunting.”
On board the “Havsel,” Kvernmo and his crew shot 2,227 seals this year. “There are two million seals out there and we get two thousand… this ship takes nothing from the seal population today.” Kvernmo said.
Still, the subsidy cuts to Norway’s seal hunt come as no surprise to Kvernmo.
“I was just waiting for the end of it,” he said. “The campaigners are the winners, we are the losers… that’s all.”