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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.


REINE, Norway — 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.

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