Whaling in Iceland
In late February 2016, Kristjan Loftsson, Iceland’s sole fin whaler, announced that his company, Hvalur hf, would not be killing endangered fin whales off Iceland this summer. This was welcome news: since 2006, Hvalur hf has killed 706 endangered fin whales. Cancelling this year's hunt meant a reprieve for up to 154 fin whales (this being Iceland's self-allocated quota for fin whales). At the time, Loftsson blamed difficulties in exporting his meat from Iceland to his only customer, Japan for the decision not to hunt in 2016. He denounced Japan's whale meat analysis methods, claiming “If we had known what was in store in Japan, we would not have started again.” Read more on this announcement here.
However, in July 2016, Hvalur hf exported 1,530 tonnes of fin whale meat and products to Japan. The shipment arrived in Osaka on 9th September and it remains to be seen whether it will be allowed to enter the Japanese market.
The minke whalers have been operating this year and to date have killed at least 46 minke whales (exceeding numbers killed in recent years). Whilst most of the meat is eaten by tourists under the mistaken belief that it is a 'traditional' Icelandic dish, even that demand is declining thanks to a public awareness campaign run by WDC and other NGOs, asking tourists not to consume whale meat whilst in Iceland. If you visit Iceland, please don't be tempted to sample whale meat. You can read more about this campaign here.
Escalating hunts despite declining demand
In 2015 Icelandic whalers killed 155 fin whales and 29 minke whales.
In 2014 Icelandic whalers killed 137 endangered fin whales and 24 minkes.
In 2013, after two years of no fin whaling, Icelandic whalers killed 134 fin whales and 38 minke whales.
In 2011, Iceland's total whaling of 58 minke whales was down from its 2010 peak of 148 fin whales and 60 minke whales. The collapse of the Japanese market for fin whale meat demonstrated the true commercial nature of Iceland's industrial whaling as no market led to no hunt taking place. With much of the domestic market being made up of unsuspecting tourists, the real market for whale meat within the Icelandic community itself continues to decline and current figures (2014) show that less than 3% of the population regularly eats the meat.
Background and recent history
When the International Whaling Commission agreed in 1982 to stop all commercial whaling by the 1986 whaling season, Iceland did not take an objection to the decision, as other whaling countries did. After the moratorium took effect, Iceland continued a small “scientific whaling” programme, and killed some 60 whales a year until 1989, but then left the IWC in 1992. Iceland rejoined in 2002 with a legally disputed reservation against the moratorium. Many countries objected to Icelandʼs attempt to circumvent international regulations, and some countries still do not even recognize Icelandʼs membership of the IWC.
Iceland resumed scientific whaling in 2003 and, in a five year “research” programme, killed a total of 200 minke whales from 2003 until 2007. Without even waiting for its supposed research study to be completed, Iceland resumed commercial whaling under its reservation to the moratorium in 2006, killing 7 fin whales and 1 minke whale in a self-allocated commercial quota. During this period, 2006/2007, 7 fin whales and 61minke whales were killed. Whilst no fin whales were killed commercially in 2007/2008, Iceland issued a commercial quota for 40 minke whales in 2008, of which it killed 38.
In January 2009, just as the Icelandic government was voted out of office due the country’s economic problems, the out-going Fisheries Minister authorised a massive increase in the commercial hunting quotas for both fin and minke whales. The incoming Fisheries Minister declined to overturn his predecessor’s last minute decision and large-scale commercial whaling in Iceland resumed in 2009, with 125 fin whales and 81 minke whales killed.
Icelandʼs 2010 commercial whale hunt was the largest of its kind in decades, with 148 endangered fin whales and 60 minkes whales killed. In May 2011, HAFRO, Icelandʼs Marine Research Institute proposed quotas for 2011-2012 at 154 fin and 216 minke whales, with a possible carry-over of 20% of any unused quota from 2010. In addition, HAFRO suggested that if Iceland decided to expand its minke whales hunt further afield, a take of up 121 minke whales would be allowed in what is known as the CM area, around the Jan Mayen islands, an area for which Norway also issues quotas.
You can read more about Iceland's history of whaling in more depth
Domestic demand including tourism
When whaling resumed in Iceland in 2003, minke whale meat sold poorly; efforts were made to encourage the public to try whale meat, as well as to develop new products such as smoked minke meat. Pickled whale blubber is consumed during a traditional Icelandic winter festival known as Þorrablót (Thorrablot), but is not in demand year-round.
With the resumption of a commercial fin whale hunt in 2006, additional difficulties in domestic sales of whale meat were experienced, especially with the significant yield of meat from a fin whale, which is at least 10 times the size of a minke whale. The Icelandic press reported in early 2007 that 179 tonnes of “slaughter waste” or “a proportion of about one-third to one-half of the fin whales” killed in the commercial hunt had been dumped in landfills. However, more recently, the vast majority of the fin whale catch is exported to Japan (see International Trade below).
Domestic consumption amongst Icelanders
Consumption of minke whale meat in Iceland has fluctuated in recent years. A 2005 research report estimated that the domestic market for minke whale meat in Iceland would be in the range of only 5 - 15 tonnes a year. A 2006 poll by Capacent Gallup in Iceland indicated that only 1.1% of Icelandic households eat whale meat weekly. Following an aggressive marketing campaign by the government, a follow-up poll in 2010 revealed an increased figure of 5% of Icelanders said that they eat whale meat on a regular basis.
However, the latest poll, commissioned in 2013 by IFAW and conducted by Capacent Gallup, showed that only 3.2% of the population eats whale meat on a regular basis (defined as 6 times a year or more) and even fewer (1.7%) eat it at least once a month.
Much of the minke whale meat is consumed by tourists under the mistaken belief that this is a traditional dish. Investigations by WDC and others around 2012 revealed that more than 100 restaurants, shops and supermarkets around Iceland were selling whale meat products, up from only 50 in 2007.
However, a public awareness campaign by WDC and other NGOs has succeeded in driving down tourist demand considerably and now around 60 restaurants display a 'whale friendly' sticker. The outreach campaign is yielding results: in 2009, 40% of tourists surveyed had tried whale meat whilst in Iceland. By 2012, this figure had fallen to 20%, and a 2015 survey showed it had fallen still further to 18%.
Iceland lodged a reservation to the Appendix I listing of most great whales when it joined CITES in 2000. Although some countries have consistently opposed Icelandʼs trade in whale products, the world has largely turned a blind eye. Now, Icelandʼs whaling industry is growing and diversifying; creating new commercially valuable products (including whale meal/animal feed and whale oil) from the hundreds of fin and minke whales it kills each year.
i) Minke whale imports and exports
Citing this reservation, Icelandic nationals imported eight tonnes of minke whale meat and blubber from a Norwegian whaling company owned by Ole Mindor Myklebust in July 2002, and 17 more tonnes in October of 2002. The frozen Norwegian whale meat initially sold well, as it was going for a low price of 993 kronur per kilo, below the cost of beef. However, in 2003 it was discovered that the Norwegian whale meat contained much higher levels of mercury than the minkes taken in Icelandʼs ʻscientificʼ hunt. As a result of this research into toxin levels in whale meat (both Icelandic and Norwegian), the Icelandic Surgeon Generalʼs office issued a warning to pregnant and nursing mothers to restrict their intake of whale meat due to concerns over high levels of mercury.
In September of 2006, it was announced that Iceland would sell up to two tonnes of minke whale meat to the Faroe Islands. The first export of 0.5 tonnes of whale meat from Iceland to the Faroe Islands occurred that year, followed by a shipment of around 90 tonnes of whale meat to the Faroes in late 2008. Two shipments of whale meat were sent to the Faroe Islands in 2010. In early 2010, a shipment of 250 kilos of frozen minke whale meat to Latvia violated both CITES and European Union laws.
ii) Fin whale exports
Until June 2013, Hvalur hf, Iceland's fin whaling company, shipped its catch to Japan via EU ports, including Southampton, Rotterdam, Le Havre and Hamburg. However, massive protests forced a shipment to be returned to Iceland and since then, the company has been obliged to cast around for alternative routes.
February 2014: 12 shipping containers of fin whale meat arrived in port at Halifax and transited Canada by train ‘under bond’ before departing from Vancouver for Japan.
March 2014: 2,071 tonnes of frozen Icelandic fin whale meat travelled aboard the container vessel Alma round the coast of Africa, reaching Japan in early May.
June 2015: The palletized container vessel Winter Bay carried 1,816 tonnes of fin whale meat through the Northeast Passage, reaching Japan on 1st September that year.
July 2016: The Winter Bay carried 1,529 tonnes via the same route, arriving at Osaka on 9th September.
Iceland has also been working on new applications for whale products. This is detailed in the WDCS Report "Reinventing the Whale".
The economics of whaling
Icelandʼs scientific whaling was extremely expensive, costing almost 30 million Icelandic kronur (over US$440,000) in associated costs, such as vessel rental, in 2003. This escalated to a total of 78.9 million kronur in 2006 (almost US$ 1.2 million). In all, it cost Iceland over US$3 million to kill and research 200 minke whales.
In March, 2010, the Icelandic government released a report on the supposed economic impacts of whaling on the Icelandic economy, and estimated that if 150 fin whales and 150 minke whales were to be killed each year, “the cod fishing quota could be increased by 2,200 tons, the haddock quota by 4,900 tons and the capelin quota by 13,800 tons.” The University of Icelandʼs Institute for Economic Studies, stated that they believed that this could add as much as US$94 million to the economy due to increased profits from larger fishing quotas that could be available if whales were “culled” to protect fish stocks. In an effort to rebut the bogus claims that culling whales could enhance fisheries output, WDC commissioned renowned marine mammal ecology expert Dr. Peter Corkeron to examine the whales vs. fish argument. In a review that focuses on the Icelandic approach to managing whales, Dr. Corkeron has debunked the myth often cited by pro-whalers that whales consume such large numbers of commercially significant fish that they need to be culled.
There are many additional flaws in the Icelandic economic report, not least that it did not try to measure the potential economic backlash that could arise from consumers unwilling to support a country engaged in commercial whaling and trade in whale products.
In May 2009, WDC joined with other groups to commission a public opinion poll of consumers in the UK, a key export market for Icelandʼs seafood. On the day of the pollʼs release, the groups protested outside the Icelandic embassy in London. From a sample size of 2,249 adults, the YouGov poll found that 82% of those queried disagreed with Icelandʼs decision to kill whales, while 64% stated that they would avoid buying Icelandic fish, prawns and other products in protest. Similar polls in the U.S. indicate that a majority of Americans would also be averse to buying fish from Iceland due to its whaling.
A more recent survey carried out by ORC International in late July 2014 found that nine out of ten people surveyed in the UK and Germany opposed Iceland's decision to resume commercial whaling, and over 85% said that they would be unlikely to support supermarkets or restaurants selling whale meat.
In March 2016, Iceland released its long overdue report on whaling which boldly claimed that Iceland's whaling is sustainable and poses no longterm threat to the economy: both claims are refutable, for more information see here.
The value of whale watching and impact of whaling upon the Icelandic whale watch industry
In contrast to the economic and political liability represented by whaling in Iceland, whale watching is immensely valuable to the Icelandic economy. In 2009, around 125,000 people took a whale watch trip in Icelandic waters. These whale watchers provide significant direct revenue of more than US$4 million in direct taxes to the Icelandic economy, as well as add-on tourism expenditures such as hotel and restaurant purchases.
By 2015, passenger numbers had increased to 272,000 and 1 in 5 visitors was taking a whale watch trip. Whale watching now represents the second largest leisure sector in Icelandic tourism: passenger figures for 2016 are expected to exceed 350,000 (more than the entire population of Iceland) and generate around £10 million annually.
As might be expected, whaling activities pose both a direct and an indirect threat to the whale watch industry. In a 2011 letter to the Minister of Fisheries, the Icelandic Whale Watch Association (IceWhale) and the Icelandic Travel Industry Association (SAF), stated that the minke whales are more elusive and consequently, the whale watching boats have to travel farther in order to find the whales. The groups also protested the fact that on the 30th of April, 2011, the minke whaling vessel Hrafnreyður KO killed and processed a minke whale within the protected whale watch area in Faxafloi Bay, an area meant to be off-limits to the whalers. The vessel was escorted back to harbour by the Icelandic Coast Guard, but resumed whaling in early May.
Iceland and the European Union
In 2009, following the collapse of its economy, Iceland applied to join the European Union. WDC believed that Icelandʼs EU accession negotiations provided an opportunity to end Icelandʼs whaling and trade for good, however, the Icelandic general election on 27 April returned to power the two parties who governed Iceland for decades up to and including the 2008 economic collapse. The new Government announced that it would end all negotiations with the EU on accession and immediately abolished the Ministery of the Environment, by making it a department within the Fisheries Ministry.
In My 2013, Iceland put its accession negotiations on hold.
In March 2015, Iceland's government requested that "Iceland should not be regarded as a candidate country for EU membership."