Iceland won’t kill any whales this year

Workers at Hvalur’s whaling station pose for photos with a rare blue whale-fin whale hybrid. Image by Hard to Port

The largest whaling company in Iceland halts its whaling operations for the second year in a row because of stiff competition with Japan.

Hvalur hf., which hunts threatened fin whales as well as minke whales, is ceasing operations because it sold most of its whale meat to Japan but is not able to compete with Japan’s own whale meat products, which are subsidised by the Japanese government.

Hvalur has continued to whale in spite of the International Whaling Commission placing a global moratorium on whaling in 1986, mainly targeting threatened fin whales.

Two whales being pulled to shore so they can be processed at the Hvalur whaling station.
Image by Hard to Port

Kristján Loftsson, the company’s CEO said the COVID-19 outbreak would also make it impossible for his company to hunt whales and process the meat, since workers would need to be in close proximity to each other, and social distancing rules would be difficult to follow.

This is indeed terrific news that for a second straight year, vulnerable fin whales will get a reprieve from Hvalur’s harpoons, the sole fin whaling company

Fabienne McLellan, co-director of international relations at Ocean Care

Another Icelandic whaling business, IP-Utgerd, has announced that it will stop whaling altogether. IP-Utgerd, which mainly targeted minke whales, cited financial difficulties after no-fishing zones were extended off the Icelandic coast, forcing its boats to go further and further offshore.

For conservationists, the interruption to whaling is welcome news.

“This said, fin whaling has been suspended in Iceland in the past, only to resume.” Said Fabienne McLellan, co-director of international relations at Ocean Care. “While it looks promising that whaling in Iceland might stop for good, the temporary cessation of fin whaling must become permanent.”

One of Hvalur’s vessels returning to port with two harpooned whales.
Image by Hard to Port

Rob Read, director of Sea Shepherd UK, a group that documented Hvalur’s whaling operations in 2018, also welcomed the news.

“I believe the writing is on the wall now for the world’s most notorious whaler — Kristjan Loftsson — and his company Hvalur hf.,” Read told Mongabay. “Now is the time for Loftsson to hang up his harpoons and for Iceland to become an ethical whale watching, not whale killing nation.”

In 2018, Hvalur killed 146 fin whales and six minke whales, many of which were pregnant females. Two of the whales also turned out to be hybrids between fin whales and blue whales (Balaenoptera musculus), which stirred a substantial amount of controversy.

10 facts about whale hunting…

1. Whaling is not ancient history

Whaling has been around for centuries, but due to a rapid increase in demand for whale meat in certain countries, whaling practices went into overdrive at the turn of the last century. From 1904 to 1987, an estimated 1,339,232 whales were killed by commercial whaling fleets in the Antarctic alone.

2. Blue Whale numbers remain critically low

Worldwide numbers of Blue Whales have reduced to as little as 3,000 from an estimated 220,000. This highlights the long term effects of hunting on the ocean’s ecosystems, even 40 years after the hunting was banned, they have struggled to repopulate.

3. Since 1986, over 25,000 whales have been killed legally for “scientific research”

A ban on commercial hunting of whales has not put a stop to the practice altogether as Japan have been able to conduct “commercial whaling in disguise” due to a loophole regarding scientific research. They assign themselves a permit to conduct scientific research and killing is in the remit of the study.

4. Despite citing ‘Scientific Research’ as ‘Reason for Capture’, no Japanese data is ever published in reputable scientific journals

After more than 25 years of “scientific whaling”, almost no significant data has ever been published by any reputable scientific journal. Many of the Japanese research objectives are flawed or are based on incorrect scientific assumptions. In most cases, the information they claim to be collecting is much more efficiently obtained from non-lethal methods such as tagging, photo ID, and DNA profiling.

5. Japan simply left the IWC

After repeated International Whaling Commission (IWC) knock backs, Japan withdrew from the Convention and IWC in 2018. Japan, has however, indicated that it wishes to attain IWC observer status. That Japan will remain an IWC observer at least allows for continuing dialogue.

A fin whale caught by an Icelandic whaler

6. Whaling now

Whaling for profit was banned in 1986. But, reluctant to give up the market for whale meat and products, Japan, Iceland and Norway continue to hunt and kill fin, minke and sei whales every year.  Norway objects to the ban, Iceland hunts under a dubious ‘reservation’ while Japan has gone it alone and restarted commercial whaling.

7. How many whales are still killed?

Over a thousand whales are killed every year. People make money from selling their meat and body parts. Their oil, blubber and cartilage are used in pharmaceuticals and health supplements. Whale meat is even used in pet food, or served to tourists as a ‘traditional dish’.

6. Whales are killed by a variety of methods

Because they are so huge whales are difficult to kill. Harpoons with grenades are sometimes used. These explode inside the whale and sometimes do not kill instantaneously. Sir David Attenborough has said in the past that “there is no humane way to kill a whale at sea”.

9. Whale meat consumption

Whale meat is eaten in Norway, Iceland, Japan, Greenland, and by Inuits and other indigenous people in United States and Canada. Whale meat is tender, melts in the mouth and has a flavour between fish and beef according to diners. In Japan, you can even buy whale bacon.

10. The arguments for and against killing whales

Many countries who hunt whales say it is part of their culture and necessary for food. They argue it is no different from the killing of other mammals to eat.

Faroe Islanders say their hunting is sustainable and will not impact overall numbers of whales. They also defend their method of killing the whales, saying that killing them with knives means they die within seconds.

Japan says critics of its whaling are sentimental about whales and disregarding scientific evidence about the sustainability of whaling. Japan withdrew from the Convention and IWC on June 2018. Japan, has however, indicated that it wishes to attain IWC observer status.

We don’t know how many minke whales there are in the Antarctic. However the international court ruling stated that it did not believe it was necessary for Japan to kill whales in order to study them.

Animal rights activists say killing whales is cruel and unnecessary.


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