Iceland Whaling Myths and Facts

Myth/Allegation: The United States kills more whales than Iceland and other countries

Fact: According to media reports, Alaskan natives announced that 13 bowhead whales were killed and landed in their 2013 spring hunt. A further 30 bowheads were killed and landed in the 2013 autumn hunt, and an additional five whales were known to have been struck with harpoons, but subsequently were lost.

In comparison, in 2013 Iceland killed 35 minke whales and 134 fin whales and Norway killed 564 minke whales. Japan killed 251 minke whales in its 2013/2014 Antarctic hunt, known as JARPA II. Japanese whalers also killed one sperm whale, 100 sei whales, 23 Bryde's whales, and 95 minke whales in the 2013 North Pacific whale hunt known as JARPN II. Russian natives have killed an average of 126 whales per year in its aboriginal whaling hunts over the last 10 years, while St. Vincent and the Grenadines killed three humpback whales in 2013.

It should be noted that whaling by the United States, Russia, and St. Vincent and the Grenadines is conducted under what is known as an Aboriginal Subsistence Whaling (ASW) quota, which is far different than the commercial whaling done by Iceland.

ASW quotas were developed by the International Whaling Commission (IWC) in recognition of the fact that certain indigenous peoples rely on whales for subsistence. The ASW quotas ensure that risks of extinction to whales are not seriously increased by whaling and enable native peoples to hunt whales at levels appropriate to their nutritional requirements ('need').

With the killing of 169 whales by Iceland in 2013 versus 43 by the United States, Icelandic whalers killed nearly four times more whales than Alaskan Inupiat whalers in 2013. Globally, with the exception of St. Vincent and the Grenadines, native whalers in the United States killed the smallest number of whales compared to other countries engaged in commercial or aboriginal subsistence whaling.

Myth/Allegation: Iceland's whaling is sustainable

Fact: The IWC adopted a commercial whaling moratorium in 1982 which came into effect in 1986. To implement the moratorium, the IWC has established zero quotas for all species of great whales with the exception of whales killed in ASW operations. Iceland is whaling in defiance of this ban by relying on a controversial reservation to the moratorium that several IWC governments have not accepted (see below).

Following the adoption of the commercial whaling moratorium, the IWC asked its Scientific Committee (SC) to develop a precautionary approach on the setting of commercial whaling quotas if the moratorium were to be lifted. In response, the SC developed the Revised Management Procedure (RMP). One element of the RMP used to calculate quotas is the "tuning level"—the fraction of the pre-exploited population that would be left after 100 years of operating the RMP. The higher tuning level, the smaller the allowed quota.  

The SC offered a range of possible tuning levels to the IWC from the least conservative (.60) to the far more precautionary (.72). The IWC adopted the .72 level in 1991 and approved the RMP in 1994. The .72 level means that the number of catches would be set so as to allow at least 72 percent of a whale population's initial abundance to be maintained. Though accepted, the RMP has not been used to set catch limits because the commercial whaling moratorium is still in place and no requests for advice on catch limits have been made by the IWC to the SC. 

In July, 2011 Argentina, Belgium, Chile, Colombia, Mexico, Monaco, New Zealand, and the United States expressed concern that the takes of fin whales reported by Iceland in 2009 and 2010 (125 whales and 148 whales) were greatly in excess of the sustainable catch limit of 46 fin whales that would be calculated if the RMP tuning level (.72) were to be applied. The chair of the SC supported this determination. In 2013, Iceland killed 134 fin whales, far in excess of what would be sustainable if the IWC were to set quotas.

In December 2013, Iceland awarded itself a quota of 154 fin whales from 2014 to 2018, again far in excess of the 46 fin whales determined to be sustainable by the SC and despite the fact that an IWC SC workshop to review the RMP for North Atlantic fin whales had been scheduled for 2014. The Icelandic government continues to allocate its own quotas. They are not approved by the IWC, and they are not sustainable.

Myth/Allegation: Fin whales in Icelandic waters are not endangered and minke whales are numerous

Fact: Iceland's Ministry of Fisheries claims that the fin whale was classified as "Endangered" by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) "solely because of its poor status in the Southern Hemisphere." This is false.

The IUCN, an international scientific body that determines the conservation status of species worldwide, defines a species as endangered "when the best available evidence indicates that it meets any of the five listed criteria … for Endangered … and it is therefore considered to be facing a very high risk of extinction in the wild. The IUCN listing of fin whales as "Endangered" was made on the basis of the criteria that "the global population has declined by more than 70 percent over the last three generations (1929-2007)."

The Fisheries Ministry also states that the fin whale stock in the North Atlantic "does not qualify for any of the endangered categories ('Vulnerable,' 'Endangered' or 'Critically Endangered') in the European regional IUCN list." However, the "European" regional fin whale designation is "Near Threatened," meaning that the region's fin whales are close to qualifying for, or likely to qualify for a threatened category in the near future. This European regional IUCN "Red List" evaluation is problematic, however, in that it was published in 2007 and thus pre-dates the most recent IUCN evaluation of the fin whale conducted in 2013.

Under the threats section of the European fin whale listing, it is stated that, "It seems unlikely that the catching of fin whales will return to the high levels of previous years, not least due to the limited market demand for whale products."

However, Iceland has killed 414 fin whales since 2006, and exported nearly 5,000 metric tons of whale products to Japan. These levels are similar to those from its hunt in the 1980s prior to the implementation of the whaling moratorium in 1986. Clearly, the threats from commercial whaling and trade in whale products are serious and on-going.

While IUCN acknowledges that there may be indications of increasing numbers of fin whales off Iceland, it also notes that "[t]he values used for the maximum net recruitment rates are based on poor data and may be over-optimistic, especially in the North Atlantic."

In addition, the European Red List volume includes the following disclaimer:

"The views expressed in this publication do not necessarily reflect those of IUCN."

As for minke whales in Icelandic waters, a statistically significant decline in the abundance of minke whales in Icelandic waters has been noted by scientists from Iceland's Marine Research Institute over the past several years. Sightings surveys from 2007 indicated that the abundance estimate for minke whales in Icelandic waters was thought to be between 10,000–15,000 animals, which was only 24 percent of the estimate published in 2001.

The causes of this sudden drop in density are still unknown although changes in prey density due to climate change may be involved. Icelandic scientists, however, have also acknowledged that there is poor survey coverage in the offshore areas of Iceland, especially to the north and west of the country, and that therefore a real population decrease cannot be ruled out.

Myth/Allegation: Iceland's whaling is legal and so is its trade in whale products

Fact: Iceland did not formally object to the 1982 moratorium on commercial whaling, and was thus bound by the ban. Nevertheless, Iceland continued to whale after the moratorium took effect under the guise of "scientific" whaling, taking approximately 60 whales per year from 1986 until 1992, when it withdrew from the IWC.

In 2002, Iceland rejoined the IWC in a controversial vote (in which Iceland was allowed to vote on its own return to the IWC) and lodged a reservation to the moratorium; an action disputed by many countries as being contrary to international law.

The following countries have formally objected to Iceland's reservation: Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Chile, Finland, France, Germany, Monaco, Netherlands, Peru, Portugal, San Marino, Spain, Sweden, the United Kingdom, and the United States. Italy, Mexico and New Zealand also objected to the reservation and further noted that they do not consider the International Convention on Regulation of Whaling (ICRW) as being in force between their countries and Iceland.

Although the IWC has described scientific whaling as "an act contrary to the spirit of the moratorium on commercial whaling and to the will of the Commission," Iceland resumed scientific whaling in 2003 and over five years killed 200 minke whales. In 2006, it resumed large scale commercial whaling even though 25 nations and the European Commission delivered a demarche to Iceland that year urging it to reconsider its decision to start commercial whaling and halt its ongoing whaling operations. Since that time, 414 endangered fin whales and 530 minke whales have been killed for commercial purposes.

Iceland joined the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) in 2002, and immediately took reservations to the listing of several species of whales—-including fin and minke whales—on Appendix I, which prohibits international commercial trade in their parts and products.

Iceland resumed large-scale trade in whale products "under reservation" to Japan in 2008. Since then it has shipped 5,000 metric tons of whale meat and blubber—-mostly fin whale products—to Japan. Smaller shipments of whale meat and blubber have also been shipped to Norway (which also holds a reservation), the Faroe Islands (a non-party to CITES) and Latvia. The latter shipment in 2010 was illegal given that Latvia does not hold a reservation to the listing of whales on Appendix I .

Numerous entities, including the United Nation Environment Program's World Conservation Monitoring Centre (WCMC) have raised concerns that such sizeable levels of trade in whale products under a reservation diminish the effectiveness of Appendix 1 listings.

Myth/Allegation: Whales are eating all of our fish and need to be "culled"

Fact: Countries in favor of resuming commercial whaling have argued that this may increase fisheries catches. At the IWC, this "whales eat fish" debate has been ongoing for years, with Iceland, Japan and other pro-whaling countries arguing that whaling should be resumed in order to protect fisheries catches.

In reality, the real culprit behind the decline in fish populations is over-fishing. The UN Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) found that 57.4 percent of the world's commercial fisheries are fully exploited and 29.9 percent are over-exploited. In addition, research has shown that there is little overlap between what whales consume and the main species of fish targeted commercially. Many of the species consumed by whales are not eaten by humans.

Furthermore, although whales are high on the marine food chain, the ocean food web is complex, and there are several other large "predator" fishes such as tuna and billfish that are far more important consumers of commercially targeted fish species compared to whales and other marine mammals. In addition, most populations of large whales targeted by commercial whalers have still not recovered to their pre-exploitation levels.

Marine ecosystems are highly complex, and it has proven very difficult to prove just what impact the removal of a top predator from the food chain has on commercially sought fish species. In some cases, it has been shown that removing a top predator may actually lead to a lower fishery yield. There are also concerns that "culling" (the deliberate removal of one species to protect another) has unforeseen long-term environmental consequences.

Eminent Icelandic biologist Arnþor Garðarsson reviewed the Icelandic "whales are eating too many fish" arguments, and found them deficient. In an op-ed in one of Iceland's leading newspapers, Dr. Garðarsson stated:

The entire discussion on the ecology of whales and whaling is "cherry-picked" based on statements from whale specialists that have put emphasis on the alleged impacts of baleen whale species on fisheries, and assume that whaling may enhance fish stocks. This is based on an older study (Gunnar Stefansson, Johann Sigurjonsson and Gisli Vikingsson, J. Northw. Atl. Fish. Sci, 22 (1997) 357-370). This study is an oversimplification that is not supported, not to rub the authors' noses into it, but it is strange to see this study re-emerge and be re-sold as part of the government's economic analysis package.

This is a top-down model and assumes that animals higher up on the food chain "manage" the food web as opposed to models that are "bottom up" and assume that organisms at the lower levels of the food chain manage upper levels. Several examples of each model can be taken individually, or combined, but newer approaches take a long term approach that questions what happens to the equilibrium of the food chain, or even whether such an equilibrium exists.

Currently it is known that changes in ocean currents can have impacts on a marine ecosystem, moving organisms long distances and transforming the basis of the feeding ecology of fish, seabirds and marine mammals. This is what seems to have happened here in Iceland since 1996 (see H. Stars et al, Prog. Oceanogr. 80 (2009) 149-162) and it appears that, among other things, there has been a collapse of the sand eel, which is one of the key foods for cod, saithe, puffins, minke whales and other species that feed on the continental shelf.

The feeding habits of these animals before and after the crash have been transformed, and the idea of a uniform, long-term composition of the food chain is no longer viable.

Myth/Allegation: Whaling is an essential part of Icelandic culture

Fact: The killing of large whales in Iceland was not conducted at an industrial level until the late 19th century. Although whaling was conducted opportunistically from the 12th century onward, the numbers of whales killed were not large; dead and stranded whales that washed up on the beach were utilized, and some whales were killed by fishers in open boats using spears marked to show ownership. Once dead, a speared whale would wash ashore, to be claimed. Basque fishers also hunted whales off Iceland in the 17th and 18th centuries.

The first modern commercial whaling operation in Iceland, however, was started by an American company in 1865. That company went bankrupt and closed down only two years later. In the 1880s, Norwegian whalers began operating off Iceland's shores, primarily targeting blue whales.

The first truly Icelandic-owned commercial whaling venture, Hval-Industri Aktieselskabet Ísland, began in 1897, although most of the crew and management were Norwegian, and the vessels were also Norwegian-built. That company went bankrupt in 1906, in large part due to declining catches because of over-hunting, and was sold to one of its key shareholders, Ásgeir Ásgeirsson.

Ásgeirsson's company resumed whaling in 1910, but was again shut down in 1913 due to a lack of whales. Commercial whaling in Iceland was then dormant until 1935, when one business, the Hlutfelagið Kópur company obtained a license to resume whaling. This renewed whaling effort stopped with the advent of World War II, with Kópur abandoning its operation in 1940.

In 1948, Loftur Bjarnason founded the Hvalur hf fin whaling company. Hvalur hf operations were located at a former US army base in Hvalfjörður where it remains today. Hvalur hf has expanded its operations by adding additional freezer capacity and processing facilities in other locations in Iceland. Loftur's son, Kristjan Loftsson, is currently managing director of Hvalur hf, and one of its main shareholders.

An analysis of Hvalur's production of whale meat, blubber, meal and oil shows that the vast majority of its products were aimed at the export market, particularly in Japan.

Whale meat has never been a major part of the Icelandic dietary pattern. A 2011 poll conducted by MATIS, an Icelandic food and biotech company owned by the government, showed that minke whale consumption was very low. It found that minke whale meat was consumed in limited quantities, on average only a few times each year.

A more recent poll of Icelandic citizens conducted by Capacent Gallup for the International Fund for Animal Welfare in October 2013 showed that only 3 percent of Icelanders eat whale meat regularly (defined as six times or more in the last 12 months). However, 75 percent of Icelanders have never bought whale meat. Among women and young people (ages 18 to 24) 82 and 86 percent, respectively, have never bought whale meat.

Myth/Allegation: Icelandic whale hunting is humane

Fact: All whaling is inherently cruel. Even the most advanced whaling methods cannot render the animals insensitive to pain and stress prior to death or the onset of unconsciousness, as is the accepted norm for domestic food animals. Modern whaling involves the use of harpoons fired into large, moving targets from moving platforms on a shifting sea, often under extreme weather conditions. The harpoons are fitted with penthrite grenades, which are supposed to penetrate to about 12 inches and then explode, releasing claw-like protrusions to rip into the flesh. Death can come by trauma, laceration or a destructive shock wave to the brain.

The likelihood of obtaining a clean, accurate strike resulting in a swift death is low. When not achieved, harpooned whales can take a long time to die. Even if a clean strike is thought to have occurred, measuring kill efficacy including "time to death" is problematic.

The IWC provides criteria for determining when a whale can be considered insensible and/or dead: when, upon visual observation—usually by the whaler—it displays relaxation of the lower jaw and no flipper movement, or sinks without active movement. Reputable scientific experts in the field have questioned the validity of these criteria and are in agreement that these are not foolproof measures of insensitivity and death.

On December 13, 2013, Icelandic Member of Parliament Árni Þor Sigurdsson (Left Green Party) raised a series of questions regarding whaling and, specifically, whether there was proof that the hunts are humane. The questions focused on the scientific evidence collected on time to death (TTD), the number of explosive harpoons that have been used by Iceland since 1989, and information on observation and monitoring of the whaling fleet.

In responding to that question, Iceland's Minster of Fisheries, Sigurður Ingi Jóhannsson, acknowledged on February 10, 2014, that Icelandic law had not required its whaling industry to collect data on either instantaneous death rate (IDR) or TTD for whales killed in its commercial operations. In other words, Iceland cannot provide any answer as to how long it took to kill whales. Consequently, any claims that Iceland makes that its whaling operations are "humane" lack any factual support, particularly as it refuses to submit welfare data to the IWC for analysis.