COLUMN ONE : Rough Seas for Defiant Whalers : Norway's fishermen have sailed into a storm of controversy by breaking world hunting ban. With their country's blessing, they kill the minke, a species they say is plentiful enough to harvest.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Gunnleif Olsen, a lean and leathery fisherman here in the remote Lofoten Islands, never dreamed that he would one day have to carry war insurance to ply the lonely northern waters of the Atlantic.

But when his Ann Brita joined 27 other small wooden boats that recently pulled out of harbor in the perpetual sunlight of an Arctic summer, he became part of a determined invading force in a volatile international battle of wills.

"To me, a whale is just a whale," Olsen said while making last-minute preparations to set sail on his 70-foot boat.

On June 17, after two weeks at sea, Olsen harpooned a four-ton female minke and, with Norway's blessing, became the first fisherman to officially break the international ban against all commercial whaling.

It was the proverbial shot heard round the world.

Norway's open defiance of the 1986 moratorium not only puts the country's pristine image, sizable export income and considerable pride at risk. It also refuels a long-simmering feud in environmental circles.

Norway's unilateral decision that the minke is plentiful to "safely" harvest is being challenged by nations such as the United States, which maintain that no whale should be hunted, regardless of whether its particular species is endangered or not.

"Whaling is about more than whales themselves," Foreign Minister Johan Jorgen Holst told Parliament in announcing Oslo's defiance of the ban. "It is about the rights of a coastal nation to make use of available resources."

The government promptly launched an $800,000 international public relations campaign to defend its decision, and powerful fishing industry associations and concerns hired spin doctors to try to undo the potential damage.

Norwegian scientists maintain that the relatively small, baleen minkes are not endangered but a natural resource that can be replenished; the minkes number 86,700 off Norway and more than 750,000 in the Antarctic, prompting some Norwegians to refer to them as the "rats of the sea."

But the United States, Germany, Britain and other furious members of the International Whaling Commission argue that whaling is as much a matter of ethics as of ecology and are threatening trade boycotts, sanctions and even a possible Olympics snub when Norway hosts the Winter Games next year.

"If Norway gets away with this, then Iceland and Japan will follow, and then Korea will follow and Russia will follow," warned Ingrid Berthinussen, an Oslo-based spokeswoman for Greenpeace, which protested the decision by chaining six activists to a whaler's harpoon cannon for several hours before the hunt began.

Although no other nations have followed Norway's controversial example, animal rights activists fear that the domino effect is inevitable and will lead to the unchecked slaughter of the mammals Greenpeace considers the "humans of the sea."

At the unlikely center of this firestorm are the tranquil Lofoten Islands, scattered in the icy emerald waters above the Arctic Circle. On the island of Mosken, tiny Reine is the capital of Norway's whaling industry, boasting seven family-owned boats and a tradition that spans centuries. With tidy houses and rustic fishing huts wedged between the frigid fiord and jagged mountains, Reine is home to 1,400 islanders. More than half fish for a living or work in related jobs, such as processing.

While whaling is scarcely a matter of sustenance in affluent Norway, it is more lucrative than fishing for cod, the islands' economic mainstay. And, traditionally, eating whale is, to many everyday Norwegians, no different than eating beefsteak.

"Are we going to compete with cows and sheep for grass to eat? Because that's where this will end," said Olsen, who started whaling 50 years ago when he went out on his father's boat as a 9-year-old and spotted whales for the harpooner. His younger brother, Terje, went along too, at age 6 so small he had to stand on an upended pail to see out of the crow's-nest.

"What do they want us to live on?" demanded Terje Olsen, now 56. "They're not going to stop at whales when they say whales are more intelligent than humans. Some animal rights groups even say prawns have feelings!"

Before embarking on this summer's controversial hunt, the Olsen brothers had to spend about $1,000 for "war insurance," a necessary, high-risk policy for Lofoten whalers since a maverick Southern California activist sabotaged a boat last December. Paul Watson and his Santa Monica-based group, Sea Shepherd, claimed responsibility for nearly sinking the docked Nybraenna in Lofoten.

"They sent me a letter and said it was a Christmas gift for the children of the world," said Jan Odin Olavsen, owner of the boat and secretary of the Whalers' Assn. Damage was estimated at $120,000 and was covered by insurance and donations.

Although he could face criminal charges in Norway, Watson reportedly has set sail for Scandinavia again, vowing to ram and sink any whalers he encounters.

Nevertheless, Olavsen planned to go out this year on the limited research hunt sanctioned by the International Whaling Commission, whose scientific committee studies data from the slaughtered minkes.

The data has generated internal strife within the IWC, with the head of the scientific committee recently resigning to protest the commission's failure to adopt its plan for resuming managed commercial whaling.

"Of course, the reasons for this were nothing to do with science," committee Chairman Philip Hammond said in his resignation letter, circulated by the whalers' lobbying group, High North Alliance, as evidence that the international ban is driven more by politics than by pragmatism.

The Reine-based alliance, which also supports seal hunting, has become the impassioned voice of Norway's relatively small group of whalers and a stubborn harpoon in the side of environmentalists, who are regularly mocked in the alliance's acerbic newsletter.

"You think you can buy a good, green conscience by saving a whale or a seal," said alliance Secretary Georg Blichfeldt, who maintains that the debate over minke hunting "takes attention away from real environmental issues, like global warming. If you introduce the premise that some species are too cute or too smart or too something to harvest, you introduce chaos. Who would defend a threatened snake?"

Fishing and hunting are mainstays of the small communities dotting Norway's vast coastline, especially above the Arctic Circle, and Prime Minister Gro Harlem Brundtland's government appears determined to defend a principle regardless of the cost.

"If these coastal communities are to have any future, they are dependent on the acceptance of their time-honored right to exploit the living, renewable resources of the sea," the Foreign Ministry said in a six-page press release defending Norway's hunting of whales.

Gunnleif Olsen's father was a whaler, as is one of Gunnleif's sons. "I have a grandson who's 15, and he'd like to be a whaler," Olsen said. "We're trying to get him into something else, but he'll hear nothing of it. There's no future in this anymore. I'm afraid this is the last generation of hunters."

Whaling, which takes place during the summer after the cod season ends, accounts for about 60% of the Olsens' income. The rest comes from cod, but quotas on that fish prevented the whalers from making up lost income by increasing their cod take, and many depleted their savings over the last few years trying to get by during the summer lull.

"We don't take holidays anymore," Olsen said, and there is no cash to upgrade boats or make more than the most vital repairs. The Ann Brita is 23 years old, and it costs Olsen about $6,000 just to get her ready to go out.

Marietta Krosrud, the wife of a Reine whaler, noted that "these are rough years, but we're not starving."

"Most of us are living in good houses. Most of us have a car. But there's not enough money to buy anything new," said Krosrud, who is active in the politically powerful national Fishermen's Wives Assn. "We're rather stubborn here. There are people in this county who have lost homes and boats, and some have moved to Sweden. But we're not going around crying and begging in our bare feet."

Most whalers had to invest in new harpoon cannons or lines this year under tight restrictions Norway is imposing as it resumes commercial hunting. All hunters had to pass a shooting test, and all boats will have inspectors--veterinarians, mostly--on board to ensure that the animals are killed as humanely as possible.

Although whalers maintain that most minkes die instantly when hit by the exploding harpoon, or within three minutes, environmentalists say a bad kill can drag the suffering out for half an hour. "Fifty percent of the whales die immediately," Blichfeldt said. "In elk hunting, only 10% is instantaneous death. . . . In Britain, where there are no restrictions on blood sports . . . there is no international outcry.

"You can't say there's one standard for whales and one for pigs. We're going to take less than 1% of the minke population here, while Sweden takes one-third of its elk.

"If I thought Norway was going to take the last whale, and this whale was as intelligent as Einstein, and singing like Pavarotti and as merciful as Mother Teresa," he added, "then I would be emotionally against it. But there's a terrible amount of misinformation about whales. Some research shows they are no more complex than a herd of cows."

The low quotas Norway set this year, amounting to 296 whales, mean Olsen is allowed to kill just five minkes, a limit that could conceivably be reached in just one day if the weather is fine and the whaling is good. Seven whalers passed on the chance to go out this year, complaining that the quotas were too low to make it financially feasible.

"The small quotas mean they're going out in worse weather than they would have earlier, and a smaller crew is working harder and faster," said Krosrud, whose husband is crewing on a whaling boat this season.

But as the first whalers returned from this year's hunt to auction the meat, prices turned out to be surprisingly high--about $2.50 a pound, with each whale weighing about 4,000 pounds.

Although Norway insists that the meat is being sold for consumption only here, Greenpeace claims that Japanese buyers have contacted whalers to look into buying blubber, oil and other parts of the whale Norwegians eschew.

So far, salmon fishermen, not whalers, are paying the price of Norway's defiance. It is too early to assess the financial impact of the threatened boycotts, but some major German importers of Norwegian smoked salmon already have canceled their contracts to protest resumption of whaling.

When Hellmut Stoehr, general manager of the German gourmet supplier Beeck, met with Norwegian officials to warn them about the ramifications of their decision to resume commercial whaling, the response was angry and unflinching. "They called me an imperialist," he said. "They insisted that most of the world agrees with them, except for some crazy countries that were throwing a tantrum."

Stoehr canceled his $7-million contract to import Norwegian salmon, unhappily acknowledging that he would have to settle for "second-best, and at a higher price," by dealing with Scotland, Ireland, the United States and Chile.

He met with his German competitors and extracted promises to make the business "Norway free" until commercial whaling is halted. A recent poll showed that the majority of Norwegians oppose the commercial hunt for fear of the economic impact of boycotts.

Only 28% backed the government's stand, while 52% wanted to delay the hunt until international opinion could be swayed. But 7 out of 10 Norwegians surveyed favored commercial hunts in principle.

"Norwegian whalers are just ordinary people doing their jobs," Krosrud said. "They're not Vikings out searching for blood."

The damage to her country's image both saddens and angers her, but the fight, she insists, is worth fighting. "If this is a losing battle, then we've lost a lot in the world," she said. "We've lost common sense."

Minkes Found Worldwide

What do we know about the animal at the center of this controversy? Minke whales:

* Reach a length of 32 feet, with average length of 27 feet.

* Are air-breathing mammals, like other whales. They live 40 to 50 years and bear live young.

* Lack blowholes. They also do not throw their tails in the air when they break the water.

* Are a member of baleen family, one of the two major groups of whales. Baleen whales are toothless; they are named for the plates they use to eat. The baleen lack sonar-like abilities of toothed whales, which account for 66 of the 76 known species.

* Like to eat fish, unlike most baleen whales, which eat only plankton. Minkes have multiple stomachs.

* Produce more young than larger baleen whales; they have roughly one calf per year.

* Are found in all the world's oceans. In Antarctic waters alone, experts estimate the stocks total at least 750,000 animals.

* Are known to migrate north along Norwegian coast to Barents Sea and Arctic Ocean, returning south along coast in autumn to southerly parts of Atlantic Ocean for winter. It is this "northern stock" that Norwegian whalers harvest along coast and on summer feeding grounds farther north.

The Two Types of Whales

Baleen whales are named for the thin plates that hang from their upper jaw. The plates are made of the same type of material as human fingernails.

Kinds of baleen whales:

* Right

* Gray

* Rorqual (includes blues, humpbacks and minkes)

Peg-like teeth grow from the lower jay of most toothed whales, although some species also have teeth in the upper jaw.

Kinds of toothed whales:

* Beaked

* Sperm

* Beluga

* Dolphins

* Porpoises

Sources: Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Associated Press, World Book

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