Hey there, it’s Stephen Dubner. If you’re a regular listener, you may have just heard our series called “Everything You Never Knew About Whaling.” We spoke with economists, historians, a Moby-Dick scholar, and an environmental activist whose mission in life is to stop whale-hunting. We also tried to speak with a whale-hunter. But public sentiment against whale-hunting is so strong that most modern whalers don’t want to speak with the press. Also, there just aren’t that many whalers around anymore. In the 1960s, at the peak of industrial whale-hunting, thousands of whalers in more than a dozen countries were killing tens of thousands of whales a year. Today, commercial whaling happens in only three countries — Norway, Iceland, and Japan — and collectively, they only kill around a thousand whales a year. There just isn’t much demand for whale meat, it turns out, and even less for whale oil.
Anyway, we couldn’t get a modern whaler to go on the record with us — until just recently, after we’d completed our series. His name is Bjørn Andersen and he’s one of the biggest whalers in Norway. The Norwegian government allows for the harvest of 1,000 minke whales a year. The minke is plentiful; it’s not at all an endangered species. Even so, Andersen and his fellow whalers usually take only around half of the allowed quota each year. Like I said: not much demand for whale meat these days. When we caught up with Andersen, he had just finished his whaling season. In the conversation you’re about to hear, he tells us why he loves hunting whales, and how he does it; why harvesting whales is important to maintaining the supply of fish; and why he thinks that in the future, there will be more whale-hunting, and not less. That’s coming up on today’s bonus episode of Freakonomics Radio, starting now:
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Stephen DUBNER: Okay, Bjørn. It’s Stephen, you can hear me okay?
Bjørn ANDERSEN: Yes, I hear you.
DUBNER: I’m sorry to interrupt your holiday. Yes, you’re on holiday in Sweden?
ANDERSEN: Yes, I am, outside Soderhamn, in the middle of Sweden. We have to go to my wife’s home place.
DUBNER: And what do you do when you’re there on holiday?
ANDERSEN: Cutting grass.
DUBNER: Do you do any fishing?
ANDERSEN: No. It’s holiday.
DUBNER: Now, where in Norway do you live?
ANDERSEN: In Lofoten, in the westerly part of Lofoten. On the water, we live on small islands.
DUBNER: Is that where you grew up?
DUBNER: Did you grow up in a fishing family?
ANDERSEN: Yes. My father was a fisherman and a whale hunter.
DUBNER: And can you tell me about your work now? You’re mostly a fisherman, and then you whale during the whale season?
ANDERSEN: In the 1st of January, we start fishing cod. When it comes to spring, April or something like that, we’ll start minke whale hunting. And that goes on to the summer. After summer, we go to shipyards to repair and fix the boat. And in the autumn, we fish herring.
DUBNER: So of the three things that you catch mostly — cod, whale, and herring, which makes you the most money?
ANDERSEN: It depends. Cod and herring are, this year, the best.
DUBNER: How was your whale season this year? How many whales did you get?
ANDERSEN: 111 whales.
DUBNER: Wow. Holy cow. So you alone are responsible for, like, 25 percent of all the whales taken in Norway this year, yeah?
DUBNER: So, 111. How many trips was that?
ANDERSEN: Uh, four trips.
DUBNER: Can you describe how you sell it then? Who do you sell it to?
ANDERSEN: Well, it’s a company I’m a co-owner in. And then we distribute it to all of Norway, to the stores. They export some whale to Japan.
DUBNER: One thing that confuses me is, I read that the Norwegian quota for minke whale in a year is 1,000, but that all of you collectively, all the whalers only take like 5 or 600 in a year. So why are you not getting up to the quota? Is it just not worth it? Are there not enough whalers?
ANDERSEN: It’s a problem to distribute and get it in the store everywhere. And people have to buy it.
DUBNER: What about the price of whale meat over the past few years? It goes up, it goes down. Where is it?
ANDERSEN: No, it’s going up, but not in that speed we want. The price of whale meat has risen every year almost, but not enough. It’s about one-third or one-fourth of our income.
DUBNER: Does the government subsidize fishing and whaling?
DUBNER: Not at all?
DUBNER: Are there any price guarantees for the fish or the whale that you catch?
ANDERSEN: Yes. All fisheries in Norway have a guarantee, minimum price. It’s regulated by law.
DUBNER: Is it usually sold for more than that anyway?
ANDERSEN: Uh, yes. Often it’s over the minimum price.
DUBNER: But the minimum price is useful to you, just in case the prices fall, yeah?
ANDERSEN: It’s useful for everybody, because you don’t have those ups and downs. Everybody are jealous of our fishermen today, because it has been quite good to be a fisherman in the last 20 years now, because we have had quite good quotas and good money.
DUBNER: So what would happen to you if Norway decided that they don’t want to allow anyone to hunt whales anymore?
ANDERSEN: If they do, they are crazy. Some years from now, there will be no cod or no herring to fish because there are so many whales. That’s the food for the whale. Minke whale is an opportunist. He eat even salmon. And cod and herring and everything. If you hunt the whale, you can fish more fish because you have the balance in the ecosystem.
DUBNER: Do you know how many minke whales there are in the world?
ANDERSEN: The latest number is 150,000.
DUBNER: In the world?
ANDERSEN: Not in the world, in the North Atlantic.
DUBNER: I saw a number, this was a few years ago, that said there were maybe half a million of Antarctic minke stocks. Does anyone talk about the minke whale as endangered at all?
ANDERSEN: That must be people who don’t know anything about the sea, because if you are going to the coast of Norland and Troms and Finnmark, you can see minke whale and humpback and fin whale. All the spring and summer and the autumn. If you number out how much minke whale eat, if there are 150,000 minke whales, it will be about 50 to 60,000 ton each day of fish. They have studied the number of, how much the sea animals, including birds and everything, eats in a year. It’s 25 million tons of food. And the fishermen only take 4 million tons.
DUBNER: When you get the whale — you kill, you bring the whale on board the boat, and you open up the stomach. What do you find in the stomach of a minke whale?
ANDERSEN: Everything. It could be salmon. It could be cod, it could be herring.
DUBNER: So do you think the Save the Whales movement that started in the 1970s, do you think it’s gone too far, that there are too many whales that are eating too much of the fish supply that people eat?
ANDERSEN: Yes, it will come to that soon.
DUBNER: So when someone says to you, “Bjørn, I like whales, I don’t want any whales to be killed, what do you say to them?”
ANDERSEN: No, I don’t like to kill them. It’s for food. A minke whale is very closely related to a cow, because the minke whale has four stomachs. So I cannot see any difference to kill a cow or kill a minke whale.
DUBNER: The entire commercial whaling industry — Norway, Japan, Iceland, wherever — kills only about 1,000 whales a year. But hundreds of thousands of whales are dying every year from plastic pollution and noise pollution and boat strikes, and most of all from getting caught up in fishing gear. But it seems that most of the protest, by environmental activists, is directed at you, at the commercial whalers. Why do you think that is?
ANDERSEN: It’s humans’ bad conscience due to environmental stuff.
DUBNER: Do you consider yourself an environmentalist?
DUBNER: Do you think of yourself as a conservationist?
ANDERSEN: Yes, I think it’s common sense. If you harvest nature, you have to make sure that there are growing up things to hunt or to harvest next year.
DUBNER: So what do you say to someone who thinks that they are being a perfect moral person, right? And says that no one should ever kill whales.
ANDERSEN: Get some understanding of the nature. It’s simple like that. They don’t understand the nature. They believe more on Walt Disney or something like that. I have not so much to say about that, because I am just fed up with them. They’re also wrong in many, many places. Stop the plastic pollution we have now, they should have worked for stopping plastic pollution, many, many years ago. And even petrol, the global warming is also a big issue. We don’t know what’s happening in the years to come. They should have done more work on those issues that really become a problem for us. Minke whale or whale hunting is not a problem. It was a problem for the whale some years — many years ago. Now it’s now a problem with the whale stock.
DUBNER: Do you think that the International Whaling Commission did a good job years ago when they tried to regulate the number of whales that could be killed?
ANDERSEN: They didn’t do their job.
DUBNER: Why not?
ANDERSEN: They are an organization based on the scientific committee. And the scientific committee said there was enough minke whale. So they should have given out quota on minke whales, but they didn’t.
DUBNER: So what would happen if everyone in the world were allowed to hunt minke whale starting next year? Would that be a problem for the minke whale population?
ANDERSEN: Of course. You have to do a regulation. You have to count them. You have to give out quota, and do it sustainable.
DUBNER: I’ve read that whalers wanted the Fisheries Ministry in Norway to promote whaling and whale meat, but that it didn’t work, that they were worried that trading partners would get upset. Do you know anything about that?
ANDERSEN: Yes. I was one of those who wanted him to respond on that. But he didn’t.
DUBNER: Have you ever been to the U.S., Bjørn?
DUBNER: Where did you go?
ANDERSEN: New York.
DUBNER: Yeah, that’s where I am. Did you like New York?
ANDERSEN: Uh, yes. Because I studied engineering, high-power electricity engineering. So we must visit Con Edison in New York.
DUBNER: And you were working as an engineer then?
DUBNER: Who did you work for?
ANDERSEN: Norsk Hydro. It was a power plant, yes. It produced about 3 percent of Norwegian electricity.
DUBNER: So why did you stop working as an engineer and become a full- time fisherman?
ANDERSEN: It’s a much better way of life. You are free, and you are out. You can see the nature, you can see whales. You can see other fish and you can feel the weather, bad weather or good weather, in a much better way than you would do in the office.
DUBNER: When you came to New York, did you go into the rural areas at all, or just the city?
ANDERSEN: No, we were just in New York.
DUBNER: Okay, so if you had gone upstate into New York, you would see a lot of deer. And in the U.S., some species of deer are considered a nuisance animal for a lot of reasons. They eat crops, they spread disease, they cause car crashes. And so hunting of deer is encouraged. There’s a season, and there’s a limit. Do you see the minke whale as sort of a nuisance animal like that?
ANDERSEN: No, it’s a source of food. But you have to try to balance the ecosystem as good as you can, because then it will produce the most. We have to harvest our resources in a sensible way. If you don’t shoot whale, the ecosystem will collapse sooner or later.
After the break: how, exactly, does Bjørn Andersen harvest those resources?
ANDERSEN: You have to think like a whale.
I’m Stephen Dubner, this is Freakonomics Radio, we’ll be right back.
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Welcome back. I’m speaking with Bjørn Andersen, a Norwegian fisherman and whale-hunter. This is a companion piece to our recent three-part series “Everything You Never Knew About Whaling.”
DUBNER: Tell me about your ship. How big is the ship, what’s it called?
ANDERSEN: The boat is called Reinebuen and it’s a 32-meter long steel boat.
DUBNER: And the name of the boat, Reinebuen, what does that mean?
ANDERSEN: My father was grown up on Reine. It’s a place in Lofoten. Reinebuen — it’s like a man who lived on that place.
DUBNER: Did you grow up wanting to be a whaler when you were a kid?
ANDERSEN: Yes, I was, uh, five years. First time I saw a whale was shot. I was very excited.
DUBNER: Why did you get talked into becoming an engineer, then?
ANDERSEN: They were stopping the whale hunting. So, yeah. I didn’t know what to do.
This was in 1986, when the International Whaling Commission put a moratorium on commercial whaling. But in 1992, Norway announced it would resume hunting minke whales, in defiance of that ban. Andersen, who was by then working as an engineer for a power company, was able to get back to his first love.
ANDERSEN: I think that was a very good decision, because the culture and the know-how starting to disappear. And, it could be very hard for the coastal people here in Norway.
DUBNER: Do you have kids, Bjørn?
DUBNER: Do you have young crew members that are going to become, like you, a whaling boat captain.
ANDERSEN: Yes. They just finished school and they started to onboard a ship and learn to catch whale or fish. Some are good and some are bad.
DUBNER: Yeah, yeah, yeah. You’re good?
ANDERSEN: Yes. My father, he learned me everything. You have to have a good interest in what you are doing and, it’s whatever you do. If you don’t have the interest, you will be not so good.
DUBNER: What about the crew size on your boat?
ANDERSEN: We are six people all the year.
DUBNER: They work for you year-round, the same six?
DUBNER: Do they live in your town?
DUBNER: What’s the longest you’re ever gone from land then?
ANDERSEN: Two, three, four weeks. We have been on the north side of Spitsbergen, almost 81 degrees north.
DUBNER: When you’re out on the water, can you describe how you locate the minke whale?
ANDERSEN: We only use our eyes.
DUBNER: Wow. No sonar, nothing like that?
ANDERSEN: No, nothing. It’s the best equipment we have.
DUBNER: Okay. So, what are you looking for?
ANDERSEN: Oh, looking for the whale.
DUBNER: You’re not looking for birds or a spout?
ANDERSEN: The birds as well. They often give away where the whale are, so we know to use all the nature.
DUBNER: And how often does the minke whale breach?
ANDERSEN: It’s three to five minutes, and then they come up and blow three times. We try to get close to the whale, and try to think out where it’s possible, where the whale would go. You have to think like a whale. It’s like a chess player. You have to think some step forward. It’s a hunt. You have to get close to it because we don’t shoot long-distance. It’s just 30 or 40 meter, or something like that, or closer.
DUBNER: And describe the harpoon.
ANDERSEN: The harpoon is 70 millimeter, but the barrel on the cannon is 60 millimeter. So it’s a big hole where the harpoon hits the whale. In the front of the harpoon, we have, of course, the grenade. Will explode inside a whale.
DUBNER: So how fast does that kill the whale, then?
ANDERSEN: It’s instant. If you don’t kill it, maybe make it unconscious. And then we kill it with the rifle.
DUBNER: And what kind of rifle do you use for that?
ANDERSEN: Uh, it’s American rifle, .375 Remington.
DUBNER: Just so I’m clear — the grenade, that’s at the end of the harpoon—
ANDERSEN: In the front of the harpoon.
DUBNER: Where do you aim on the whale? For the head, the heart?
ANDERSEN: The chest.
DUBNER: And then if it doesn’t succeed in killing the whale, then you kill it with the rifle, yes?
DUBNER: And then how do you get it on the boat?
ANDERSEN: Oh, we have strong wire. We put on the tail, and then we pull it up on the deck with a winch.
DUBNER: And how big are they?
ANDERSEN: It could be up to ten meter.
DUBNER: What does it weigh: 15, 20,000 pounds?
ANDERSEN: I don’t know about pounds. It’s up to eight, nine ton.
DUBNER: So you get it on the boat with the winch. What happens now? Who butchers it, and so on?
ANDERSEN: Oh, it’s the crew, cutting off the blubber and the meat. And then we put the bone back to the sea.
DUBNER: What do you do with the blubber?
ANDERSEN: Uh, we give it to the birds.
DUBNER: Okay, so the oil is not worth anything.
ANDERSEN: Not for now. It’s a very healthy oil. We haven’t managed to get any good system for taking the oil.
DUBNER: Do they travel solo or in groups?
ANDERSEN: Both. But very often the minke whale is a lonesome cowboy. They travel individually. But when they come to places where there are a lot of food, there could be very many.
DUBNER: Does the minke whale ever try to attack the boat?
DUBNER: Some whales do, yeah?
ANDERSEN: No. No. It’s more like accidents. You know, you have some YouTube clip where a humpback jump up and fall down on a sailing boat or something like that. But I don’t think it’s attack, it’s just an accident.
DUBNER: Yeah, I see. Have you read Moby-Dick?
ANDERSEN: No. I’m not a reader.
DUBNER: When you see a whale breach, how can you tell if it’s a minke whale, or maybe some other kind of whale?
ANDERSEN: Oh, it’s like to see the difference on a horse and a pig. Maybe, you can mix them up if you are from New York or something like that, but not the crew on the whale boat.
DUBNER: Do you ever hear the whales communicating or singing?
ANDERSEN: You could sometimes, you can hear the white whales and sometimes humpback.
DUBNER: If Norway were to allow the hunting of other species of whale, which ones would you want to hunt?
ANDERSEN: I have enough with the minke whale. Because we have to have bigger boats and other equipment to hunt bigger whales.
DUBNER: We spoke with someone in Japan who said that one reason that some whalers there still hunt whales is because the world tells them they can’t. And I’m curious if that’s the same for you in Norway.
ANDERSEN: That’s stupid. Yes, that’s stupid. I already said it, you have to harvest in a sustainable way. It’s stupid.
DUBNER: Bjørn, we’ve been working on this series about the history and economics of whaling for about six months. And you are the first whaler who agreed to speak with us. Why do you think that whalers are so reluctant to speak about whaling?
ANDERSEN: Oh, I have had a lot of journalists on board a ship and there are many bad journalists who only want to have the big scoop, you know? Want us to say something they could put together so they could make a scoop or something like that. A lot of journalists are very bad. That’s a pity. When I watch the news, I have a big question signs: is this true or not? Because I have experienced many bad journalists — but also some good. I think people, the whalers, are fed up with the bad journalists, who only want to have a scoop.
DUBNER: And when you say they want a scoop, what does that mean? It means they want to make you look bad? It means they want to make you look like you don’t have morals?
ANDERSEN: Yeah, something like that.
DUBNER: Do you think whaling will still exist in Norway in ten years?
DUBNER: What about 50 years?
ANDERSEN: Then it will be more. It has to be.
DUBNER: You say it has to be to protect the fish stock, you say?
ANDERSEN: Yes. And to produce food enough for the people on the planet.
DUBNER: Is there anything we didn’t talk about that we should? Is there anything I didn’t ask you that I should have, or anything you just want to tell me about?
DUBNER: No, it’s enough? You’ve had enough of me?
ANDERSEN: Yes. I hope people in United States will understand that it’s, to hunt animal, it’s not a nice thing to do, but it’s necessary. It’s good food. It’s not nice to see a cow being killed. Not even a chicken. You never get allowed to see that. The minke whale have a nice, free life before he meet me. Then it’s over.
DUBNER: All right, Bjørn, thank you very much. I appreciate your talking to us, and I enjoyed speaking with you. Thank you.
And thanks to you for listening to this conversation with the Norwegian whaler Bjørn Andersen. If you want to learn more about the modern whaling industry, I recommend you listen to part 2 of our whaling series, it’s called “Why Do People Still Hunt Whales?” And while you’re at it, you can listen to episodes one and three, also. We’ll be back soon with another episode of Freakonomics Radio. Until then, take care of yourself and, if you can, someone else too.
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Freakonomics Radio is produced by Stitcher and Renbud Radio. This episode was produced by Zack Lapinski and mixed by Greg Rippin, with help from Jeremy Johnston. Our staff also includes Alina Kulman, Daria Klenert, Eleanor Osborne, Elsa Hernandez, Gabriel Roth, Jasmin Klinger, Julie Kanfer, Lyric Bowditch, Morgan Levey, Neal Carruth, Rebecca Lee Douglas, Ryan Kelley, and Sarah Lilley. Our theme song is “Mr. Fortune,” by the Hitchhikers; all the other music was composed by Luis Guerra.
DUBNER: How many times a week, or a month, do you eat whale, would you say?
ANDERSEN: One or two times in the week. We have chopped whale meat. We have tacos, pizza. Everything.
DUBNER: Do you ever eat it raw?
ANDERSEN: Yeah, yeah. Tartare, it’s very good.
- Bjørn Andersen, Norwegian whaler.
- “Common and Antarctic Minke Whales: Conservation Status and Future Research Directions,” by Denise Risch, Thomas Norris, Matthew Curnock, and Ari Friedlaender (Frontiers in Marine Science, 2019).
- “Norway Is Planning to Resume Whaling Despite World Ban,” by Craig R. Whitney (The New York Times, 1992).
- “Everything You Never Knew About Whaling,” series by Freakonomics Radio (2023).