Vessel owners suffer as EU seal ban hammers Norway
“You can still smell the seal blood!”
While Norway, along with Canada, continues to fight the European Union’s ban on seal products, the ban’s impact is crippling the seal industry in its Arctic region.
That’s what you’ll hear from Bengt Koreneliussen while he gives a tour of his largest sealing vessel, the Kvitbjorn, or “White Bear,” docked at Norway’s Arctic city of Tromsø.
Koreneliussen runs a tight ship: he flies up ladders and darts through narrow hallways like someone who has spent more time on the water than on land — every rope is coiled, all equipment stowed away, every coffee mug on its shelf in the galley below deck.
But some things are harder to tidy away than others.
As he strides across the wooden deck — which has the dull, fuzzy look of endless scrubbing — he gestures at his feet.
“You can still smell the seal blood!” he exclaims.
With the nearby fish warehouse and the breeze coming off the fiord around Tromsø, it’s hard to tell.
But if anyone would know, it’s Koreneliussen.
He’s one of the last of what was once a traditional profession in northern Norway —a seal hunter.
And his Kvitbjorn was one of only four boats to set sail from Norway this spring to hunt harp seals on the ice west of Greenland.
The Norwegian seal hunt has been in decline for years. But many say that its undoing may be the EU ban on seal products that’s been in force since 2010.
Canada has long been the loudest voice in the fight against the ban, but the other country hit has hard is Norway, which is not a member of the EU.
Koreneliussen’s grandfather began hunting seal in the late 1930s but it was a different story back then, he said. Then, dozens of smaller, wooden boats sailed from Tromsø every year.
But the bigger difference was the amount of money that could be made.
“They say if you come from a good trip,” he said. “You could even buy a house.”
After two or three seal hunting trips, his grandfather had enough saved to buy his own boat. But those days are long gone. The Kvitbjorn brought back about 7,000 seals from a month-long hunt.
Total profit was just over a million Canadian dollars.
Which might seem like a lot, but Koreneliussen said that after paying a full crew for a month, not much is left over. Plus, taking a boat into pack ice means taking a serious financial risk; high fuel usage, poor weather and damage all eat into profits.
Koreneliussen got lucky and bought the Kvitjorn for a fraction of its actual value, he said, because her previous owner had gone bankrupt.
There aren’t many people these days who are willing to invest in a sealing ship — which requires a reinforced hull to navigate Arctic ice packs and can cost upwards of $7 million dollars — with the prospect of such a small return.
But Koreneliussen said doesn’t know how much longer he’ll do this.
His dream, he said is to do more and more transport work for the oil industry.
“When that happens I will stop sealing,” he said.