Despite its remote location in the Northern Atlantic, the nation of Iceland (population 320.000) has become an increasingly popular destination for nature and wildlife enthusiasts who are drawn to Iceland’s stunning natural beauty. Iceland’s reputation as a place of raw and pristine natural beauty stands in stark contrast to one of the nation’s most infamous secrets : Iceland’s commercial whale hunt. While thousands of tourists come to Iceland every year to enjoy its precious and rare fauna, the country’s government cynically supports the industrial killing of some of Iceland’s most magnificent and threatened animals. This is all the more ironic since the whale watching industry quickly becoming a vital source of revenue for the nation’s important tourist industry.
Whales have been hunted and killed by humans for thousands of years, primarily for their meat and oil. In the 18th and 19th century, small-scale subsistence hunting gave way to commercialized whaling operations that were carried out by organized fleets of whaling ships. This development reached its peak in the 20th century when so-called factory ships further increased the efficiency of the whaling operations.
With tens of thousands of whales killed every year, whale populations worldwide began to drop significantly in the 20th century. Unable to effectively manage the rapidly expanding industrialization of the whale hunt, three decades ago the international community made the inevitable decision to stop all commercial whaling activities in order to forestall the extinction of several whale species and in order to allow for their populations to recover from the historically low levels reached in the 20th century. In 1986 a global moratorium on commercial whaling came into effect that set all catch limits to zero. This moratorium remains in effect to this day.
Almost thirty years later, whale populations have still not recovered from the massive onslaught to which whaling nations had subjected them in the decades leading up to the moratorium. This is in part due to rising threats from increased ship traffic, the effects of climate change, pollution, dimished food sources resulting from massive overfishing, entanglement in fishing gear such as illegal driftnets, all of which offset the gains that have been made as a result of the moratorium on commercial whaling. Despite 30 years of concerted efforts to protect the threatened whale populations of the world, the future and full recovery of many whale populations continues to be far from certain.
While the vast majoriy of nations recognize the ongoing need for strong protection of the global whale population, their efforts to achieve this feat are routinely undermined by a small number of nations, most notoriously Japan and Norway, who despite international protest continue to hunt whales for commercial purposes. In 2006, Iceland effectively ended their support for international efforts to protect whale populations by granting killing permits for two cetacean species to the country’s whaling industry. Iceland thus followed Japan and Norway and became the third nation to still allow the commercial killing of whales.
Two separate markets have been created since Iceland resumed its commercial whaling operations. While minke whale meat is predominantly sold domestically (for example in restaurants where it is served to uninformed tourists), meat from endangered fin whales is shipped overseas and is exclusively bound for the Japanese market.
In late 2013, the Icelandic Ministry of Fisheries and Agriculture defied and provoked the international community yet again by further increasing the country’s hunting quota. Iceland’s whalers are now allowed to kill up to 229 minke whales and 154 fin whales annually for commercial purposes.
The waters of Iceland are inhabited by a variety of different whale species. Some of these species are so-called migratory species, who return from warmer southern waters to the colder Northern Atlantic to feed on schooling fish, small squids, and krill. Among these whales is one of the largest animals to have ever lived on our planet: the fin whale (Balaenoptera physalus). Fin whales can grow as big as 17-32 metres in length and weigh between 50 and 80 tons. The average life span of a fin whale is 80-90 years. However, some specimens with an estimated age of up to 140 years have been found. The fin whale is officially recognized as an endangered animal species and is listed on the Red List of Threatened Species of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).
Unlike their smaller baleen cousins, fin whales are mostly found in deeper, open waters. Investigations have shown that the Hvalur Hf. fleet (the only company that carries out the commercial hunt on fin whales) steams towards deeper south-western waters, closer to the continental shelf in Iceland’s exclusive economic zone in order to hunt fin whales. Hunting in this area allows Hvalur Hf. to return to the only fin whale processing plant, which is located in Hvalfjörður, within hours of a succesful hunt.
The second whale species that is targeted in the commercial whale hunt is the common minke whale (Balaenoptera acutorostrata), also known as the northern minke whale. An average minke whale measures between 8 and 10 metres in length and weighs up to 10 tons. Minke whales can live up to 60 years. However, their average life span is closer to 30-35 years. These whales can often be seen close to the shore in shallow bays. Due to their curious nature they are a popular and frequent sight during whale watching tours around Iceland. Whaling operators hunting these comparatively small baleen whales usually take their ships out to Faxaflói Bay, which lies at the gates of Iceland’s capital Reykjavik and which, paradoxically, also serves as one of the principal whale watching destinations. Other areas where minke whales are regularly hunted include Breiðafjörður Bay, a bordering shallow bay further north, and areas in the south around Hornafjörður, a small fjord in southeastern Iceland. Occasionally hunts also take place along the northern coast of Iceland.
In addition to the whales that were killed for commercial purposes, between 2003 and 2005 some 20 to 40 common minke whales were killed annually in Iceland under the guise of scientific research.
Disregarding of international agreements
Iceland’s whaling activities take place in violation of the international moratorium on commercial whaling from 1982. Following years of mounting international pressure, in 1982 the International Whaling Commission (a body that was formed to regulate all whaling activities worldwide) officially set the catch limits for all commercial whaling operations to zero in an effort to avert the extinction of many whale species. The moratorium came into effect in 1986. While a number of countries, including Norway and Japan, objected to the IWC’s decision, Iceland did not initially oppose the moratorium. However, in 1992 Iceland left the IWC. In 2002 Iceland re-adhered to the 1946 International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling. In its instrument of adherence, the government of Iceland stated that it would not authorize the resumption of commercial whaling operations until 2006, as well as beyond 2006 while negotiations with the IWC were ongoing. However, the government of Iceland explicitly stated that this re-adherence would not apply to the 1982 moratorium.
In 2000, Iceland entered another reservation to an international agreement aimed at the protection of endangered species, namely the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). The aim of this agreement is to ensure that international trade in specimens of wild animals and plants does not threaten their survival. Both of the whale species targeted by whalers in Iceland, the common minke whale (Balaenoptera acutorostrata) and the fin whale (Balaenoptera physalus), are listed in Appendix 1 of this agreement, which entails the prohibition on international commercial trade in products from these animals.
In addition to Iceland’s government’s attempts to undermine international efforts to restore whale populations, Iceland’s private whaling companies have repeatedly breached existing trade regulations that prohibit the trade of endangered species. On several occasions meat from endangered fin whales, bound for the Japanese market, was deliberately mislabelled as fish so that it could pass through North American and European ports without problems. As a result of investigations and inspections by environmental groups, some of these shipments were detected and returned to Iceland.
Iceland’s whaling policy has been met with considerable international opposition both on a diplomatic level and from environmental organizations and grassroots groups. In the summer of 2014 the governments of the member states of the European Union, the United States, Australia, Mexico, Brazil, Israel and New Zealand signed a formal diplomatic protest, known as a démarche, in which they call on the Icelandic government to suspend the country’s commercial whaling activities and to stop the trade in fin and minke whale products. The signatories urge Iceland to respect the global moratorium on commercial whaling.
In addition to this official protest, various environmental groups have launched successful consumer boycott campaigns aimed at the sale of whale meat in Icelandic restaurants. Other initiatives have successfully targeted the seaborne whale meat trade destined for the Japanese market. As a result of these protests, shipments of endangered fin whale meat were refused transit in European ports and were sent back to Iceland. In the wake of these events, an Icelandic shipping company announced that it would cease its participation in the transportation of whale products from Iceland.
The Icelandic government’s Ministry of Fisheries and Agriculture and the whaling industry have a virtual monopoly on the gathering and publication of information about whaling operations in Iceland. This means that the bulk of information available to the public is controlled by the two parties who stand to gain the most from the hunt’s untarnished image.
In a 2013 poll 73% of Icelanders expressed the view that it is important that whaling will be conducted humanely. In the same poll almost 60% of those who were interviewed expressed the belief that the commercial whale hunt in Iceland is in fact conducted humanely. As these numbers show, the chief cause of the public’s silent acquiescence of commercial whaling is not a general indifference to the plight of the whales but rather the belief in the “humaneness” of the hunt.
Since both the whaling industry and the Icelandic government have a vested interest in a humane image, one must wonder whether the information that the public receives about the hunt is in fact as unbiased and accurate as one should expect. In reality, in the absence of impartial observers it is extremely difficult to ascertain the veracity of the information in circulation, or to judge how representative the available data is for the hunt as a whole.
The suspicion that inconvenient information may be withheld from the public is hardened by the fact that the Icelandic government does not publish information pertaining to the suffering of the whales that are hunted. If the official account of the whale hunt is true, the government should have nothing to fear from the publication of such important data. While we do not expect the whaling industry to be forthcoming with this sensitive data, we believe that the Icelandic government has a duty to inform the Icelandic public to the best of its ability. We believe that the public has a right to know, for example, how long it takes for whales to die after being harpooned. Such information is of vital importance for assessing the veracity of the claim that the hunt is conducted in a humane way.
Unfortunately, instead of being forthcoming with information that is of public interest, Iceland’s government follows the whalers’ motto “What happens at sea, stays at sea”. We at Hard To Port believe that unrestricted access to comprehensive and unbiased information about the reality of commercial whaling is absolutely crucial, especially since the vast majority of Icelanders unequivocally express concern for animal welfare. It is simply unacceptable that the Icelandic government keeps the public in the dark about a practice as controversial as commercial whaling.
Whales are among the most massive sentient creatures on the planet. Many scientists, naturalists, conservationists, and even former whale hunters agree that there is no humane way to kill a whale at sea. The most commonly employed method of killing is the firing a harpoon equipped with a barbed explosive head into the body of the moving whale. Once the harpoon has pierced the skin of the whale, the explosive head detonates and rips the whale’s internal organs apart. The whaling industry argues that this practice ensures that the whale is killed instantly. However, accounts from people who were either directly involved in the hunt or exposed to it have directly contradicted this official story, casting serious doubts on both the industry’s alleged commitment to a “humane hunt” and its ability to abide by it. Documenation of other hunts and personal accounts all emphasize the disturbingly cruel and long struggle the hunted animals experience. Rather than killing the animal instantly, the initial explosion is often merely the beginning of a long and agonizing struggle for survival that can last up to 20 minutes (or even longer).