Daring hunting in distant waters

Seal hunting arose out of the fisheries in Sunnmøre and Troms. Sealers hunted in rather small Norwegian wooden boats over an area that stretched from Novaya Zemlya on the eastern edge of the Barents Sea to Greenland and even Hudson Bay in the west. Around 1920 the sealing fleet comprised 80 vessels. It was a risky business: in 1928 as many as 21 Norwegian seal-hunting craft were wrecked on the West Ice in the Greenland Sea, and as late as 1952 five vessels and 79 men were lost without trace on the West Ice.

In Sunnmøre seal-hunting could be combined with both drift net and purse seine fishing for herring and line fishing for cod, cusk, and ling on the banks farther out to sea; this multiple activity enabled the region early on to establish a leading position in the Norwegian fishing industry. Whaling also had its beginnings in coastal fishing and hunting.

When Norwegian legislation shortly after 1900 prohibited whaling in the waters north of Troms and Finnmark, the country’s whalers discovered new and much more profitable whaling grounds in the Southern Ocean surrounding Antarctica. After an initial phase operating out of land stations on islands, Antarctic whaling developed pelagic hunting from large mother ships. The industry assumed huge proportions: in the latter 1920s about 6000 whalemen with 31 floating factories and 166 whaling ships produced a gross catch value almost twice as large as that generated by more than 100,000 Norwegian fishermen in home waters.

In 1929 the catch was the equivalent of more than 30,000 blue whales. In other words, the combined amount of meat was about the same as four million oxen! Most of this valuable meat was dumped into the sea. The main focus was the blubber, which was boiled to produce whale oil for mainly technical or industrial use. In the period 1920–55 open sea whaling in the Southern Ocean, where Norway was only one of a small number of big operators, must have been one of the first large-scale environmental disasters: the baleen whales, world’s largest mammals which feed on some of the world’s smallest animals (plankton and krill), were nearly wiped out.

Both whalers and factory ships, increasingly equipped with a stern slipway, provided significant orders for the shipyards in Oslofjord in difficult times. The whale factory ships were among the largest and most technically complex vessels in the Norwegian merchant fleet. A number of the whaling companies also got involved in tanker transport. The strong international orientation of these economic activities that grew out of a long rather primitive agricultural sector resulted in Norway’s becoming in the decades around 1900 one of Europe’s biggest fish exporters, a leading sealing and whaling country, one of the world’s largest seafaring nations, and a significant exporter of forestry products as well as electrochemical and electrometallurgical products.

In 1936 a Norwegian professor in colonial economics published a book with the curious title 0,86%. It referred to Norway’s estimated share of world trade both at that time and in the 1880s. The country had a mere 0.1 per cent of the world’s population, yet close to ten per cent of the world’s shipping tonnage. Thus, foreign business constituted a relatively large part of the Norwegian national product, more than was typical for western industrial societies at the time. Little Norway had a large overseas sector long before the age of globalization.
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