Whaling in Iceland

Icelandic whalers have slaughtered more than 35,000 whales since the late nineteenth century. Iceland refuses to recognise the IWC moratorium on commercial whaling and currently allocates its whalers a quota to kill endangered fin whales mostly for export, as well as minke whales to service domestic demand mostly from tourists.

Current Whaling

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. 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. 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.

You can follow WDC's campaigns to end Icelandic Whaling

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

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, 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.

Historically, Iceland exported much of its whale meat to Japan as its domestic market is very small.

According to a 2005 research report, it was estimated that the domestic market for minke whale meat in Iceland would be in the range of only 5 to 15 tonnes a year at most. However, due to marketing campaigns, the amount of minke whale meat being consumed in Iceland appears to be rising. A poll conducted by Capacent Gallup in Iceland for the conservation groups INCA/IFAW in 2006 indicated that only 1.1% of Icelandic households eat whale meat weekly; by 2010 some 5% of Icelanders said that they eat whale meat.

The Icelandic whaling industry has been working to increase domestic sales, for minke whale meat in particular. More than 100 restaurants, shops and supermarkets around Iceland are now selling whale meat products, up from only 50 in 2007. The tourist market in particular has been targeted, as the industry tries to sell the idea of whale meat as an exotic Icelandic food.

International Trade

Given the difficulties in selling whale meat domestically, Iceland has repeatedly stated its interest in re- opening trade in whale products. Both the minke and fin whalers have expressed interest in exporting meat to Japan, although a Japanese diplomat in Oslo responded in 2006 that Japan already had “more than enough whale meat”.

Iceland lodged a reservation to the Appendix I listing of most great whales when it joined CITES in 2000. 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 some 90 tonnes of whale meat to the Faroes in late 2008. Two shipments of whale meat were sent to the Faroe Islands in 2010.

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 potentially whale meal/animal feed and whale oil) from the hundreds of fin and minke whales it kills each year. In 2010, the Hvalur hf fin whaling company began using whale oil to fuel its whaling ships.

Given that Iceland and Japan hold reservations to the listing of whales by CITES, only the exporting country (in this case Iceland) needs to issue a permit. When news of the first fin whale meat shipments went public, Japanese government officials initially indicated that they had been unaware of the whale trade. The meat was initially held in customs, but was released for sale in December of 2008.

During 2009 and 2010, exports of whale oil to Norway and other frozen products to Japan were conducted under their respective reservations to the CITES Appendix I listing of whales, while a shipment of whale meat to Latvia in early 2010 violated both CITES and European Union laws.

Since then, Icelandic whaling interests have stated openly that the export market is the main driving force behind their resumption of commercial whaling. Gunnar Bergmann Jonsson, head of the minke whalers organisation, declared that they were looking to “sell 90 percent of the meat to Japan." In 2009, Kristjan Loftsson, owner/director of the Hvalur fin whaling company stated that he planned to export at least 1500 tons of whale meat and products to Japan.

Data uncovered in Icelandʼs statistical database reveal that the countryʼs exports of whale products have dramatically increased. Since January of 2010, more than 1183 tonnes of frozen whale products have been shipped to Japan.

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 for example, 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 of 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.

In contrast to the economic and political liability represented by whaling in Iceland, whale watching is actually valuable to the Icelandic economy. In 2009, roughly 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. This is a massive, positive boost to the Icelandic economy.

Unfortunately, according to the Icelandic Whale Watch Association (IceWhale) and the Icelandic Travel Industry Association (SAF), it appears as if minke whaling might be having a negative impact on the industry. In a letter to the Minister of Fisheries on 10 May 2011, the groups stated that the number of tourists taking part in a whale watch in Iceland in 2010 had fallen to 115,000 - a drop of some 10% from the previous year. Additionally, the groups have stated that it is increasingly harder to find minke whales, and that whale watching boats are having to travel farther to see fewer minke whales.

IceWhale and SAF 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.

The Japanese earthquake/tsunami and its impacts on Icelandic whaling

Icelandʼs 2011 fin whale season was expected to have opened in late June. However, the fin whaling company Hvalur hf, announced on 10 May that it would not conduct fin whaling in the first part of the summer. Citing the uncertainties in the Japanese market following the devastating impacts of the March 11 earthquake, Hvalurʼs CEO, Kristjan Loftsson, said that the company would postpone a final decision on whether to resume hunting, until 2012.

Although the suspension of Icelandʼs fin whaling was a welcome announcement, WDC believes that this does not reflect a change in Icelandʼs whaling policy; it is just a delay in the start of the season reflecting the situation in Japan. Iceland stopped fin whaling before (in 2007) only to resume again at a much higher level (2009). It has previously sustained its entire whaling fleet and infrastructure for well over a decade.

Iceland still self-allocated quota of 154 fin whales for 2011. As it was, Iceland did not kill any fin whales, but it reserved the right to carry any unused quota over to 2012 if circumstances changed. In the end, no fin whales were taken in 2012.

Iceland still has thousands of tonnes of fin whale products in frozen storage from previous yearsʼ hunts. There is little market for fin whale meat in Iceland and Hvalur hf is focused on finding export markets for its products, not just meat. It has, so far, exported to Japan under their respective CITES reservations, but Japan is not the only potential legal market for whale products; as stated above, Norway and the Faroe islands have both been targeted as markets for Icelandic whale oil and meat.

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.