Whaling in Iceland

The hunt is on – again

In April 2018, after a break of two years, Iceland announced a resumption of fin whale hunting. Despite there being no demand for fin whale meat in Iceland itself, the government granted a quota of 191 fin whales for the season, which starts in June, while minke whales will continue to be hunted – 17 were killed in 2017. The fin whale is the planet’s second largest mammal after the blue whale and an endangered species.
The decision is a huge disappointment to conservation groups and international governments alike. In 2016, the first of two years when no whaling quotas were issued, the US Embassy in Iceland welcomed this as a ‘positive development.’ Iceland, it said, ‘now has the chance to show itself as a leader in issues of marine conservation by opposing commercial whaling and trade in whale products.’ [1] Only Iceland didn’t take that chance, and hunting is taking place again – netting Iceland a whale sized catch of negative headlines and international criticism, too.
Iceland markets itself to tourists as a land of pristine nature, with a creative, progressive capital city, Reykjavik. Its refusal to recognise the 1986 International Whaling Commission’s moratorium on commercial whaling has always seemed at odds with this, but the ‘land of fire and ice’ is all about contradictions, after all.

So why does Iceland insist on whaling? Is it a tradition and a right? Is it a response to real market needs? Or is it a cruel, unnecessary and barely viable practice that Iceland struggles to defend on the global stage?
Why hunt whales?
The reasons for whale hunting in Iceland are complex but, what’s surprising and also quite sad, is that they aren’t simply cultural. This isn’t just a case of proud Icelanders defending their hereditary right to hunt whales, as their forefathers did (although a certain Viking independence and dislike of regulation may play its part). The pro/anti arguments aren’t as simple as culture versus conservation.
One reason for continued whaling is that Iceland views its hunting of minke and fin whales as sustainable. This is widely disputed. Whale and Dolphin Conservation (WDC) says there just isn’t enough credible data on the abundance and distribution of fin whales and minke whales to be able to make that statement [2]. Another justification is a somewhat laughable assertion that whaling doesn’t harm Iceland’s interests. In 2016, the Icelandic Foreign Ministry released a report into the country’s whaling activities and stated that political relations were not damaged by the practice [3]. So there you are – whaling is sustainable, and nobody minds us doing it.
In fact, though, international criticism of Iceland has been widespread. In September 2014, 35 countries delivered a formal diplomatic protest to the Icelandic government, registering their strong opposition to its continued whaling [4]. In the same year, Iceland was also left off the guest list for an international Ocean Conference organised by the US State Department.
In addition, the notion that whales should be culled to protect fish stocks persists. As recently as 2010, the Icelandic government and the University of Iceland's Institute for Economic Studies estimated that culling 150 minke and fin whales each a year could add as much as US$94 million to the oeconomy [5]. Coming on the back of the country’s financial collapse, these sorts of figures made compelling reading. This argument has since been debunked by Whale and Dolphin Conservation (WDC) and a 2004 report, but it still has influence.
There’s another justification of whaling in circulation – that it’s not Icelanders who eat whale meat anyway, it’s tourists. And this does hold water. Tourism has played a huge role in saving Iceland after its financial crash. Visitor numbers are projected to hit 2.5 million in 2018 and since 2016, tourism has contributed about 10 percent to the Icelandic GDP. Many of those tourists have tucked into minke whale as part of their ‘authentic’ Iceland vacation experience. Suddenly it becomes clear that a thick stew of commercial, cultural and emotional reasons, as well as some often precarious statistics lie at the heart of Iceland’s whaling industry. Unfortunately, so does tourism.
Whaling today in Iceland
Iceland has only two whaling companies. Hvalur is licensed to hunt fin whales, and relies on the Japanese market for sales. The pause in whaling in 2016 and 2017 was due to a fall-out with Japan over its food testing laws. In addition, difficulties with exporting the meat (some ports have refused to handle it) combined with a strong Icelandic krona in 2017 meant Hvalur’s ships stayed in dock for two years – until now. This has happened before. In 2011, the collapse of the Japanese market for fin whale meat led to no hunt taking place in 2011 and 2012 – and demonstrated the true commercial nature of Iceland’s industrial whaling.
An apparent loosening of Japanese regulations on Icelandic exports means fin whale hunting is now commercially viable again. Hvalur has also been working with researchers at the Iceland Innovation Centre and the University of Iceland to find other uses for whale meat and bones, including iron supplements and gelatine. Pro whalers cite this new marketing direction as justification for resuming whaling, and proof that it makes economic sense. To anyone without a vested interest, this looks like a tenuous piece of reverse logic; finding a use for a product – a slaughtered whale – that need not and should not exist in the first place.
Unlike fin whales, minke whales are hunted for one reason only: food. Minke meat is served in Icelandic restaurants, largely to cater to intrigued tourists who are under the impression that eating whale meat is traditional. Although public awareness campaigns by Whale and Dolphin Conservation and other NGOs mean tourists are increasingly aware that, by eating whale, they help perpetuate whaling, Reykjavik has a reputation as an adventurous foodie destination and the appetite for ‘gourmet and exotic delicacies’ remains strong.


Don’t order whale meat – ever. You might think you’re eating something traditional and authentic; you’re not. In 2006, only 1.1 percent of Icelandic households ate whale on a weekly basis – and Iceland has a tiny population. This rose to five percent in 2010, but only due to an aggressive marketing campaign by the government, after it authorised a huge increase in the commercial hunting quotas. Recent figures show that less than three percent of the population regularly eats whale meat [6]. As the domestic appetite for whale meat declines, hunting minke whales continues, to some degree, to simply satisfy tourist demand. So, by eating it, you are supporting and perpetuating whaling – and no amount of ‘it’s a one off’ or ‘when in Rome’ arguments can justify it.

As well as refusing to eat whale meat, you can avoid those restaurants and hotels that serve it, too, by looking out for ‘whale friendly’ stickers. You can also sign a petition on the International Fund for Animal Welfare’s website, to make Faxaflói Bay in the west of Iceland a whale sanctuary.
Do go on a whale watching trip. Visiting Iceland should be about meeting whales, not eating whales; about putting your tourist dollar behind that most persuasive of conservation arguments – that animals are worth more alive than dead. In Iceland, this is proving spectacularly true. Whale watching is booming. One in five tourists currently takes a whale watching trip, generating around £10 million each year for Iceland’s economy. It’s a glorious demonstration of how whale watching is profitable and viable, and is meeting a cultural demand for wildlife interactions and understanding. It’s a vibrant contrast with Icelandic whaling, which looks not only cruel, but anachronistic; a barely defensible albatross around the nation’s neck which doesn’t deliver economically and continues to harm Iceland’s reputation on the world stage.
Written by Joanna Simmons
Photo credits: [Page banner: Mike Baird] [Top box: Jean Bazard] [Minke whale meat: Thjurexoell] [Pristine nature: David Cantelli] [why hunt whales: Sander Hoogendoorn] [Whale watching boat: MindsEye_PJ] [Fish meat: Nick] [Whale and puffin menu: Bill Ward] [Icelandic whaling vessels: Wurzeller ] [Whale meat: Sumarliði Ásgeirsson] [Minke whalemeat in restaurant: Tim Regan] [Restaurant: Jon Åslund] [Faxafloi Bay: Suvodeb Banerjee] [Whale watching: MindsEye_PJ]