Norway’s northern city of Tromsø used to be a major port for Norway’s controversial seal hunters, but they’ve now faded into the history books. For the first time in several hundred years, not a single Norwegian boat is heading out to hunt seals this season, and proponents of the hunt now blame climate change.
“It’s over. Game over. The ice has shrunk,” Norway’s last seal hunter, Bjørne Kvernmo, told newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN) on Friday.
Kvernmo, skipper of the seal-hunting boat Havsel, was active in the hunt for more than 40 years. Now he says there have been “drastic changes” in the sea ice where seals congregated, and where hunters slaughtered them for their furs and meat. “Last year there was damn little ice,” Kvernmo told DN. “We found hardly any seals. It was a wasted trip, a huge downturn.”
He lamented that it was actually raining when his boat arrived in Vestisen near Greenland in 2015. “There was something wrong, it was pouring,” he said. “It’s not supposed to rain on the ice around Greenland.”
Kvernmo said that the ice that was there was so thin that it broke up in stormy seas, and he claims that 50,000 young seals on the ice fell into the sea and drowned. He and his crew had hunted the Greenland seals and got the highest prices for the young seals with silver-grey fur.
“We didn’t find any young seals last year,” he told DN. “They had disappeared, maybe 50-, 60-, 70,000 seals. The polar bears are also looking for them, we saw a helluva lot of polar bear tracks on the edge of the ice.”
Now his boat is moored in Tromsø’s inner harbour, which since 1850 was known as the Arctic port from which polar explorers like Fridtjof Nansen and Roald Amundsen set off, along with polar bear- and seal hunters. “It was a lifestyle, an adventure in the northern wind,” he told DN.
The Norwegian government’s decision a few years ago to cut subsidies and years of environmental opposition to the hunt have of course contributed to the demise of seal hunting, Kvernmo noted, but he cited first and foremost the reduction in ice and “difficult conditions.”
He first sailed on the Havsel in 1984, bought the boat in 2004 and in recent years was the only skipper on the only boat still hunting after financial support ended in 2015. “For me, it’s clear that it’s now over,” he said. EU regulations against trade in seal products also cut heavily into the hunt. Now his boat will start working for another industry making its disputed way into the Arctic: oil and gas. DN reported that Havsel will become part of oil pollution prevention efforts in February, sailing off the coast of Finnmark and up towards Bjørnøya.
Kvernmo and his boat, meanwhile, are now starring in a documentary film about seal hunting called Ishavsblod (Sealers: One last hunt), which was featured at the Tromsø International Film Festival this week. Filmmakers Trude Ottesen and Gry Mortensen felt it would be “tragic” if the seal hunt’s “unique culture” hadn’t been documented. “We wanted to make a portrait of the seal hunters, before they disappear,” Mortensen told DN.
Others are likely glad the hunt is over, after years of protests against its alleged brutality. Mortensen and Ottesen, however, claimed that even “vegetarians” at a film festival in Amsterdam where the film was shown before Christmas “had tears in their eyes” over the prospect that the seal hunters were losing their lifestyle, and their culture.