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Tahlequah, the Southern Resident orca, gives birth to healthy calf

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Visiting Iceland? How to ensure whales are saved and not served up


Tourism to Iceland is definitely booming!  A recent article in Al Jazeera which has been widely picked up by other media, both within and outside Iceland, boasts the headline: ‘tourism boosts Iceland’s whaling industry’. The article goes on to say that last year, Iceland welcomed a record 1.8 million visitors,  an increase of 40% on 2015.  In addition to citizens from the UK, Germany and the US, China is one of the fastest growing regions and currently ranks 6th in terms of visitor numbers to Iceland.

 Some WDC supporters are initially surprised that we positively encourage people to visit Iceland, given its ongoing hunting of both fin and minke whales, in defiance of the global ban on commercial whaling.  However, our response has always been that we want as many people as possible to support Iceland’s whale watch community, which has always been both brave and vocal in its opposition to whaling, as well as providing a massive boost to the Icelandic economy.  

WDC believes that whales are special and have the right to live wild and free. We further believe that if tourists are encouraged to boycott Iceland, then the whale watch companies would have to shut up shop,  giving the whalers a free rein to hunt whales with impunity and even to claim that they, alone, are deriving ‘economic benefit’ from whales.

And of course more tourists means more potential whale watch passengers: currently, one in five visitors to Iceland takes a whale watch trip, equating to around 360,000 passengers – more than the entire population of Iceland (currently around 333,400).  Experiencing whales in the wild is one of life’s great pleasures, but in addition to encouraging more people to take a whale watch trip, we also issue a strong alert against any temptation to sample whale products during your visit.

Never has this two-pronged approach (“please support whale watching in Iceland, but please don’t be tempted to sample whale products in any form”) been more important to highlight than now, as the whalers seek to capitalize upon increased visitor numbers by citing this as a justification for increased whaling.

Iceland currently has just two whaling companies, the minke whaling company, IP-Utgerd Ltd (previously trading as two companies, Hrefnuveidimenn Ltd. and Hrafnreydur Ltd., both of which have frequently teetered on the edge of bankruptcy) and the fin whaling company, Hvalur hf.  

Almost all the whale meat consumed in Iceland is minke whale meat and most of that is consumed by tourists, often under the mistaken impression that they are merely ‘eating like Icelanders’. However, regular readers of our blogs will already be aware that whale meat is neither a traditional nor a popular food as far as Icelanders are concerned. Indeed, a 2016 Gallup poll confirmed that over 80% of Icelanders surveyed said that they had not purchased any whale meat during the previous year and only 1.5% said that they had purchased it at least six times in the past 12 months.

The good news is that surveys commissioned by the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) show that tourist consumption of whale meat is declining rapidly in percentage terms, from 40% of visitors sampling whale meat in 2009, down to 20% by 2012, 18% in 2015 and only 12% last year. 

However, self-evidently, growing tourist numbers mean that it is even more important to reach tourists with the message that demand from them is the main driver of Iceland’s whaling industry.

And, whilst the vast majority of the meat and products from endangered fin whales is shipped to Japan, so-called ‘whale beer’ brewed with smoked fin whale testicles (and thus surely a contender for the title of ‘most crass and gimmicky product ever’) has been wheeled out for the past few years to coincide with the midwinter festival, Thorri. 

Shops and restaurants are certainly working full-pelt  to promote whale meat as ‘healthy and organic’ (although myriad issues around food hygiene, contamination and marine pollution combine to cast doubt on this boast).  Equally unhelpful – and untrue – are the claims coming from Icelandic scientists that the hunts don’t endanger whale species (in fact we don’t know enough about the current size and status of  fin and minke whale populations in the region to be able to make such a confident pronouncement) and that Iceland’s ‘sustainable quotas’ are approved by the International Whaling Commission.

 What is WDC doing to educate tourists and reduce demand still further?

In addition to widely circulating our latest flyer with the aim of reaching tourists before they even arrive in Iceland, we are also working with other NGOs to lobby airlines serving Iceland not to promote whale meat via articles or advertisements in their in-flight magazines.  We’re also asking the airlines to warn passengers that it is illegal in most parts of the world to attempt to bring whale products back home with them, following a spate of seizures at airports in Europe and elsewhere. 

Our take-home message is simple: enjoy  Iceland’s amazing scenery and marine life, but please give a body swerve to whale served on a plate or in a glass!

Find out more about our work to end whaling in Iceland here