This Year’s Reprieve for Iceland’s Whales May Last Forever!

The future is looking brighter for Iceland’s fin and minke whales.

May 11, 2020

Good news for Iceland’s whale population! For the second consecutive year, Iceland, one of the world’s last three whaling nations, will not hunt any of these intelligent and graceful marine giants. But it gets better! There’s a chance that this may be permanent. This optimism is spurred by the comments of Gunnar Bergmann Jonsson, managing director of the country’s minke whaling company, IP-Utgerd. Jonsson was quoted as telling the AFP on April 24, 2020: “I’m never going to hunt whales again, I’m stopping for good.”

On the very same day, Kristján Loftsson, the man at the helm of Hvalur, the other remaining local whaling company that catches fin whales, told Icelandic newspaper, Morgunbladid, that his ships wouldn’t be whaling either. And the reasons for this go beyond Loftsson’s stated need to observe social distancing, which makes hunting and processing whales impractical, or that Japan subsidies whale products, making his exports less competitive.

Back in 1986, the International Whaling Commission passed a global moratorium which “paused” the practice of commercial whaling. Iceland, however, which lodged an official objection to the ban, resumed whaling in 2006, with an estimated 1700 whales killed since, according to charity Whale and Dolphin Conservation. Japan and Norway, the other two remaining whaling nations, also defied the ban, often citing research needs.

But public opinion has continued to drift away from the idea of hunting these majestic mammals, driven by some encouraging trends. One of these is that support for hunting whales in Iceland has declined as whale watching has become more lucrative. In Hauganes, a northern coastal Icelandic village of only 137 people, for example, the number of whale-watching visitors rose from 4,000 in 2015 to 17,000 by 2018.

Rob Read, chief operating officer at Sea Shepherd, a marine conservation group, told the UK’s Independent newspaper:  “Now is the time for Loftsson [Hvalur’s CEO] to hang up his harpoons and for Iceland to become an ethical whale watching, not whale killing nation.”

In addition, the whaling and whale-watching waters have often overlapped in terms of territory. Whale-watching trips departing from Iceland’s capital, Reykjavik, operate within the eastern part of Faxaflói Bay, a large body of water where minke whaling has also occurred in recent years. But in 2007, a portion of the bay was established as a sanctuary where whaling was prohibited. Following a campaign by IceWhale, the country’s association of whale-watching companies, the government expanded this haven in 2017, so shrinking the hunting grounds of whalers.

Marine conservationists have also been quick to stress the need to protect minke and fin whales, the traditional targets of Icelandic whalers, as these creatures are already vulnerable to environmental pollution and climate change. The hunting of fin whales is particularly controversial, as the fin whale (Balaenoptera physalus), the second-largest animal on Earth after the blue whale, is endangered. While numbers have increased since the 1970s, this rare species is currently listed on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.

In parallel, the appetite for whale meat has plummeted in all three whaling countries. In 2018, a Gallop poll found that only one percent of Icelanders ate whale meat regularly, while 84 percent claimed to have never eaten it at all. Traditionally, whale meat was seen as a poor relation of more typical meat staples, and more recently, just something novel to be offered to tourists.

We’ll leave it to marine conservation campaigner, Vigga Thórdar, to sum up the hopes of many locals for a future without whaling. Thórdar told German broadcaster Deutsche Welle: “We have a long tradition of eating kale in Iceland and growing kale. So, eat kale, not whale!”

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DAPHNE KASRIEL ALEXANDER, EDITOR IN CHIEF
Daphne has a background in editing, writing and global trends. She is inspired by trends seeing more people care about sharing and protecting resources, enjoying experiences over products and celebrating their unique selves. Making the world a better place has been a constant motivation in her work.