Icelandic Whaling

In 1982, the International Whaling Commission (IWC) imposed a moratorium on commercial whaling, effective from 1986. Iceland, a major whaling nation since the late 19th century and a founding member of the IWC, did not formally object to the 1982 decision and was thus bound by the ban; however, it continued to whale after the moratorium took effect under the “special permit” provision in Article VIII of the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling (ICRW) that allows whaling on otherwise protected species for “scientific research." Iceland killed an average of 90 whales per year until 1990, exporting most of the products to Japan. Finally, in 1992, it withdrew from the IWC.

In 2002, Iceland rejoined the IWC in a controversial decision (it cast the decisive vote on its own membership) and lodged a reservation to the moratorium—a move disputed by many countries as being contrary to international law. Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Chile, Finland, France, Germany, Monaco, the Netherlands, Peru, Portugal, San Marino, Spain, Sweden, the United Kingdom, and the United States all formally objected to Iceland’s reservation; Italy, Mexico, and New Zealand also objected to the reservation and further noted that they do not consider the ICRW as being in force between their countries and Iceland.

Iceland resumed special permit whaling in 2003, killing 200 minke whales over the next five years under the guise of scientific research. In 2006, it also resumed commercial whaling under its reservation to the moratorium, targeting endangered fin whales as well as minke whales. Since that time, around 700 fin whales and more than 400 minke whales have been killed by Icelandic whalers, although fin whaling was suspended in 2011, 2012, 2016, and 2017. There is no demand for fin whale meat in Iceland and the hunt continues to supply a small but enduring Japanese market for whale meat.

International commercial trade in products from great whale has been banned by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) since the mid-1980s in deference to the IWC’s whaling moratorium. Iceland joined CITES in 2000 but joined Japan and Norway in entering a reservation exempting it from the ban on commercial trade in whale products. It resumed large-scale trade in whale products to Japan in 2008, and since that time has shipped significant quantities of (mainly endangered fin) whale products to Japan, Norway, and the Faroe Islands. While technically these exports to CITES parties (Japan and Norway) “under reservation” or to nonparties to CITES (the Faroes Islands) are legal, the United Nations Environment Programme-World Conservation Monitoring Centre (UNEP-WCMC) and governments including the United States have raised concerns that such sizeable levels of trade undermine the effectiveness of CITES’ protections.

Iceland killed 155 fin whales and 29 minke whales in 2015. However, facing technical obstacles to exporting the meat to Japan related to that country’s contaminant testing methods, Iceland’s sole fin whaling company suspended the hunt in 2016. It also did not hunt fin whales in 2017 although exports of stockpiled meat continue. The minke whale hunt has continued, however, with 46 killed in 2016. In large part, this hunt exists to satisfy demand not from locals but rather from curious tourists who want to try whale meat.

Iceland has collected only minimal data on instantaneous death rate (IDR) or time to death (TTD) for minke whales killed in its commercial operations. Therefore, Iceland cannot provide a credible answer to the question of how long it takes to kill minke whales, and any claims it makes that its whaling operations are “humane” lack supporting evidence. TTD data from 50 of the 137 fin whales killed in 2014 was reported by Iceland's Fisheries Directorate in March 2015. While Iceland claimed that 42 of those 50 whales died "instantly" (defined by the IWC as within 10 seconds of being shot), the remaining eight whales needed to be shot a second time. The median survival time for those eight whales was 8 minutes and one whale suffered for 15 minutes after the first harpoon strike.

Iceland Whaling Myths and Facts

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

Fact: Alaskan natives may strike up to 67 bowhead whales a year, under an exemption to the commercial whaling moratorium for aboriginal subsistence whaling (ASW). They killed 49 whales in 2015. In comparison, Iceland killed 29 minke whales and 155 fin whales in 2015. ASW is entirely different from the commercial whaling done by Iceland, which mainly supplies whale products to an export market and to satisfy the curiosity of tourists.

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 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 ('Vulnerable,' 'Endangered' or 'Critically Endangered') 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.

While the IUCN acknowledges that there may be indications of increasing numbers of fin whales off Iceland, it also notes that "the 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 regional Red List notes that “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. The most recent abundance estimate for minke whales in Icelandic waters is 12,710—roughly a quarter of the estimate published in 2001.

The causes of this sudden drop in numbers are still unknown, although changes in prey distribution due to climate change may be involved. Icelandic scientists have also acknowledged that there is poor survey coverage for whales 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 an average of 90 whales per year from 1986 until 1989 under “special permit” until it withdrew from the IWC in 1992.

In 2002, Iceland rejoined the IWC in a controversial vote (in which it 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, Italy, Mexico, Monaco, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Peru, Portugal, San Marino, Spain, Sweden, the United Kingdom, and the United States. Italy, Mexico, and New Zealand further noted that they do not consider the 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" (IWC Resolution 2003-2), 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 (a high-level government statement) to Iceland that year, urging it to reconsider its decision to start commercial whaling and halt its ongoing whaling operations. Since that time, more than 700 endangered fin whales and more than 400 minke whales have been killed for commercial purposes.

Iceland joined CITES in 2000, and immediately took reservations to the listing of several species of whales, including fin and minke whales, on Appendix I. (Commercial trade in parts and products from species listed on Appendix I is prohibited.) Iceland resumed large-scale trade in whale products "under reservation" to Japan in 2008. Since then it has shipped 8885.81 metric tons of whale products to Japan, 0.95 metric tons to Norway, and 1.56 metric tons to the Faroe Islands. It also illegally shipped whale meat in 2010 to Latvia, a signatory to CITES that does not hold a reservation to the listing of whales on Appendix I.

The United States, other governments, and the United Nation Environment Program's World Conservation Monitoring Centre have raised concerns that such sizeable levels of trade in whale products under a reservation diminish the effectiveness of Appendix I listings.

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

Fact: Countries in favor of resuming commercial whaling argue that lifting the commercial whaling moratorium would increase fisheries catches since whales compete with humans for fish. The reason for dramatic declines in fish populations, however, is overfishing. The UN Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) estimated in 2016 that 31.4 percent of fish stocks are fished at a biologically unsustainable level. In addition, research has shown that there is little overlap between what whales consume and the main species of fish targeted by commercial fisheries. In other words, many of the species consumed by whales are not eaten by humans.

Furthermore, although some whales eat high on the marine food chain, several large predator fish (e.g., tuna and billfish) consume far more commercially targeted fish species compared to whales and other marine mammals. In addition, most populations of large whales targeted by the commercial whaling industry in the past have still not recovered to their pre-exploitation levels.

Marine ecosystems are highly complex and it has proven very difficult to predict the impact that removal of a top predator will have 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 quoted text is translated here from the original Icelandic):

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, large numbers of whales were not killed; 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 by the owner of the spear used to kill the animal. 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 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 overhunting—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 Hlutfelagið 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.

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. 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.

A more recent poll of Icelandic citizens conducted by Capacent Gallup for the Icelandic Whale Watch Association and International Fund for Animal Welfare in October 2016 showed that only 1.5 percent of Icelanders eat whale meat regularly (defined as six times or more in the last 12 months).

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 a small, moving target (the area proximate to the whale’s brain) from an unstable platform on a shifting sea, often under challenging 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 secure the harpoon in the flesh. Death is intended to come from a massive percussive force to the brain but, depending on the location of the harpoon strike, can come by trauma or blood loss.

In early 2017, Icelandic Member of Parliament Rosa Björk Brynjólfsdóttur asked a series of questions related to minke whaling in Iceland, including whether there had been any research done regarding the killing of minke whales. In response, Fisheries Minister Þorgerður Katrín Gunnarsdóttir reported that a Norwegian veterinarian had been able to study time to death (TTD) for 13 minke whales in 2014 and 2015, but that “this is not considered sufficient to provide a reliable estimate of the time to death for minke whales in Icelandic waters.”

TTD data from the 2014 fin whale hunt was reported by Iceland's Fisheries Directorate in March 2015. The study reviewed TTD in only 50 of the 137 fin whales killed in 2014. While it is claimed that 42 of those 50 whales died "instantly" (defined by the IWC as within 10 seconds of being shot), the remaining eight whales were not killed and needed to be reshot with a penthrite grenade harpoon. The median survival time for those eight whales was eight minutes. In one case, a fin whale suffered as long as 15 minutes after first being shot.