Defiant Norwegians set to resume whale-hunt: The international ban is rejected as interference in the country's way of life, Leonard Doyle reports from Reine in the Lofoten Islands

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The Independent Online
A GOLDEN EAGLE soared gracefully over the sheer ice-faced cliffs surrounding Reine harbour yesterday as Geir Andersen, a third-generation whaler, mused over the refusal of the International Whaling Commission to lift its ban on commercial hunting of the minke whale.

'We will be out whaling by the end of the month,' he said, fingering a grenade-tipped harpoon that is used to kill the minke, one of the smallest of the estimated 80 species of whale in the ocean. 'The whaling commission will not stop me from making my living the way I have done for the last 20 years,' he said without emotion. 'I would dearly like to give up spending every summer of my life hunting whales in the far north, but how then do I support my family?'

Mr Andersen's 71ft wooden boat, Jwol, has been painted and is ready for the most controversial whale- hunting season in Norway's history, one which could plunge the country into political and economic isolation because of the fury it will almost certainly unleash worldwide. The 37- year-old boat, with its harpoon gun on the bows and a 'crow's nest' for a crew member to spot the minke, will travel 700 miles north to the frigid waters of Spitzbergen with seven other boats from Reine.

The Lofoten Islands area, 150 miles inside the Arctic Circle but warmed by the Gulf Stream, becomes the world's greatest cod fishery between January and Easter. By tradition, whaling takes over in the summer.

Oslo yesterday confirmed that this year's hunt - the first since a moratorium was put into effect five years ago when the International Whaling Commission (IWC) buckled under pressure from the animal welfare lobby - would go ahead. Countries such as Britain, the US and France want to stop commercial whale hunting for good because they claim the whales suffer pain needlessly despite advances in harpoon technology.

The IWC yesterday voted 18-6 to extend the moratorium for another year. The decision came as the Commission wound up an acrimonious five-day conference in Kyoto, Japan. The IWC also decided to put off a French proposal to create a whale sanctuary in Southern Hemisphere waters below the 40th parallel until next year's meeting in Mexico.

The whaling controversy is already damaging Norway's image abroad and there are now fears that it could lead to serious economic and political boycotts. Environmental groups for which the whale is a highly lucrative and effective campaign issue are now gearing up for a boycott of next year's Winter Olympics in Lillehammer, north of Oslo, and have already scored some success in a campaign against Norwegian exports. Ajungilak, the sleeping-bag manufacturer, is having trouble selling in Britain and a big US contract for Norwegian fish- fingers has been lost.

Pressure is coming from Brussels, where the European Commission has officially notified Oslo that the whaling issue will cause problems to its accession to the European Community, negotiations on which are under way.

Zolvi Pedersen, of the High North Alliance, a group of five local communities which have banded together to support whaling, sees no prospect of the Oslo government backing out of its commitment to resume whaling in this, an election year. 'It's got nothing to do with domestic politics,' she says, 'but it is all about our right to run our affairs using sound environmental principles and not following hysterical emotion.'

Norway is a highly decentralised country with some 80 per cent of the population living within four miles of the coast and many dependent on fishing and farming for a living. A resumption of commercial coastal whaling will bring only 1,000 seasonal jobs to the country, but Miss Pedersen, like many Norwegians, sees the whaling issue as the thin end of the wedge by which the animal welfare lobby wants to change how Norwegians live.

'Today it's whales, yesterday it was seals, tomorrow it will be the poor cod getting caught in the nets. The animal rights lobby is already complaining that the shrimp have feelings too,' she said.

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