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Why fin whales won't be targeted off Iceland this year

I learned some years ago that it is useless to try to second-guess the mindset and motivations of Iceland’s sole fin whaler, Kristjan Loftsson.  And so it proves once again.  

I am certainly not complaining though, as the news coming out of Iceland in recent days is that there will be no fin whaling this year! 

This welcome move, however, was by no means a certainty: rewind to last autumn’s meeting of the International Whaling Commission in Slovenia.  Loftsson sat next to the Icelandic Commissioner and was visibly confident; making loud pronouncements indicating that he would resume his fin whaling this summer.  His whaling company, Hvalur hf, has killed 706 fin whales since Iceland resumed commercial whaling in 2006, in defiance of a global ban on commercial whaling and despite the fin whale – the second largest animal on the planet – being listed as Endangered by the IUCN (the International Union for the Conservation of Nature).

Whilst Loftsson killed a record 155 fin whales during the 2015 season, his boats didn’t go out at all last year,  following a high-profile fall out with Japan – his main market –  over their methods for testing for contaminants in whale meat.  However, somewhat paradoxically, he then proceeded to ship over 1,500 tonnes of fin whale products to Japan last summer via Russia’s treacherous Northeast passage. This shipment not only reached its final destination,  Osaka, in September, but also created freezer space back home in Iceland and this –  alongside his confident remarks at the IWC meeting and the fact that observers reported seeing activity aboard his whaling vessels off Reykjavik in recent weeks – combined to suggest that he had resolved his differences with Japan and a resumption of fin whaling was indeed on the cards this year. We, therefore, braced ourselves for the announcement that the boats would be going out to sea again in June.

But Loftsson also enjoys a reputation for bravado and sabre-rattling and so, last week, came the news that there won’t, after all, be any fin whaling this season.  Given the fact that there was no hunt last year and the current rules permit a carry-over of 20% of Iceland’s self-allocated quota of 154, this equates to saving the lives of up to 184 fin whales this summer. This is wonderful news of course but it may be interesting to speculate on some of the reasons behind this decision which, if I know Mr Loftsson, will be firmly based around self-interest.

An obvious one, cited by Loftsson himself as a primary factor in his decision not to hunt this year, relates to ongoing difficulties getting his meat past strict Japanese regulations relating to meat imports. Typically, Loftsson blamed the Japanese testing methods, rather than his meat, grumbling last spring  “If we had known what was in store in Japan, we would never have started again…if the Japanese do not take up modern research methods, as are used here, so that similar methods are used in both countries, then Hvalur can no longer continue whaling for the Japanese market. Japan is our major market, so therefore [whaling] would automatically come to an end.” 

 It appears that top-level overtures made by Icelandic officials  in the intervening months have failed to persuade the Japanese to weaken their testing methods.  This is not surprising, since there have previously been complaints by the Japanese public – themselves less and less keen on consuming whale meat – about the poor quality of Icelandic imports and at least one fin whale meat shipment has been returned to Iceland in recent years after failing Japanese Ministry of Health testing.

Mr Loftsson has also cited the strong Icelandic Krona as another impediment to exports. Profit is a major variable of course, and increasing costs of transportation from Iceland to Japan via increasingly ludicrous and circuitous routes, coupled with price cuts and consumer disinterest within Japan, must be worrying for a canny businessman like Loftsson.

Iceland also has a new centre-right coalition government which currently has only a tiny majority.  Although the anti-EU Independence party fields the most MPs, the other coalition parties, namely the Reform party and the Bright Future party, are both staunchly pro-EU. Thus, the thorny topic of EU accession – or at least a referendum on this issue – could well be back on the agenda this coming year. A condition of EU membership, of course, would be that Iceland’s whaling must end.

Given the ongoing damage to Iceland’s reputation on the international stage caused by its whaling – including incurring the wrath of the Obama administration and subsequent indictment under the so-called Pelly Amendment due to its fin whaling and trade – it may well be that Iceland has sound political reasons for stopping the fin whaling for good, since it has caused so many headaches.

Can WDC claim to have played a part in Loftsson’s decision to pause his fin whaling?

Yes. I’m pleased to say that WDC has played a prominent role in creating a substantial backlash against Icelandic fin whaling, both within and outside Iceland.  For example, in recent years, we’ve exposed the great lengths Loftsson has gone to in order to ship his whale meat to Japan. 

Supporters may recall that protests by WDC and other NGOs a few years ago made Loftsson persona non grata on his preferred route via EU ports such as Rotterdam and Hamburg, forcing him to cast around for alternative – and almost certainly far less profitable – routes. We also raised this issue directly with the UK and German governments, as well as making representations to the EU for a transit ban on whale meat through its ports.

We’ve also widely publicized the strong links between Hvalur hf and Icelandic seafood giant, HB Grandi, since Loftsson is Chair of the HB Grandi Board. Working with other NGOs, we’ve persuaded several large producers and retailers – amongst them the Findus Group – to add HB Grandi to their blacklist; and exposed the sale of fin whale meat in dog treats on sale in Japan, as well as other gimmicky uses for fin whales such as so-called ‘whale beer’ (brewed with smoked fin whale testicles) and biofuel (a mix of diesel and fin whale oil).

This isn’t, of course, a time for complacency as the fin whale hunt has been paused before, only to resume – and of course the minke whalers have announced that they will start their hunt extra early this year. 

However, I really feel that there is a strong momentum building against the fin whaling in particular, so let’s hope that this year’s ‘hiatus’ really marks the beginning of the end.