Zoologist Jordi Casamitjana looks closely at the speculation about whether it is the end of whaling in Iceland based on what a minister has recently said
I did it for a couple of years.
Although my work for the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) was mainly on UK wildlife issues (such as hunting and the badger cull) and trophy hunting, I also helped the marine team that was campaigning against whaling. In particular, the whaling in Iceland, as it was under the scope of IFAW’s London office.
It was intelligence-gathering work, analysing the data from Icelandic whaling ships to try to find out what they were up to, so the people on the ground could react promptly. Quite a productive collaboration between UK and US evidence gatherers and Icelandic activists. It was around 2013 when there were two nations openly engaged in commercial whaling (Iceland and Norway), and one covertly doing it under the cover of research (Japan). Now Japan has stopped lying and since 2019 has resumed open commercial whaling.
I got to know the behaviour of all the Icelandic whaling vessels quite well, although I never even tried to pronounce their names properly (Hvalur, Hrafnreydur, or Hafsteinn). They were after two types of whales, the Common Minke Whale (Balaenoptera acutorostrata) and the Fin Whale (Balaenoptera physalus), to be found in different areas of the ocean (minke whales are smaller and roam closer to the shore). It wasn’t a big fleet, so tracing their movements was not that difficult. But finding out what they were doing when they were at sea (chasing whales, killing them, cutting them or throwing parts of their bodies overboard) was trickier.
I left IFAW in 2016, and therefore my direct anti-whaling work ended then. But, as you can imagine, when in January 2022 I read in the papers the news of the end of Icelandic whaling, I was very interested. Headlines such as “Iceland to end whaling in 2024 as demand dwindles”, “Iceland whaling: Fisheries minister signals end from 2024”, or “Iceland to Ban Commercial Whaling by 2024”, seemed to be quite conclusive about it. But then I read the articles, and I was not so sure. Although everything started with what an Icelandic minister said, it seems to me that it could be interpreted in different ways, and the media was just speculating about it.
Everything started with an article. On Friday 4th February 2022, Svandis Svavarsdottir, the Iceland Minister of Food, Agriculture and Fisheries and member of the Left-Green Movement, wrote the following in the Morgunbladid newspaper: “Why should Iceland take the risk of keeping up whaling, which has not brought any economic gain, in order to sell a product for which there is hardly any demand?… There are few justifications to authorise whale hunting beyond 2024.”
I thought I had to dig deeper to find out whether there is indeed a ban on whaling coming to Iceland in the foreseeable future, whether the industry has already gone away without a ban, or everything is just wishful thinking.
And to do that, I needed to reconnect with my Icelandic connections.
Back to the Ice People
When I had left IFAW the Icelandic whaling industry was still quite active. In 2015, 155 fin whales were hunted and 29 minke whales were killed. However, in 2016 and 2017 no fin whales were hunted after the whalers fell out with Japan over its meat testing methods, but 46 minke whales were killed in 2016, and 17 in 2017. Fin whaling resumed in 2018 with 146 fin whales killed, and six minke whales. But then, all whaling operations stopped. Despite the fact the Icelandic fisheries minister allocated a quota of 209 fin whales and 217 minke whales to be hunted each year until 2023, whaling did not resume in 2019. Had whaling in Iceland already ended a few years ago? If so, what are the current news about?
Thanks to social media, I managed to get in touch with one of the Icelanders I worked with when I was at IFAW, so I could ask him directly what is really going on over there.
Sigursteinn Másson was the Icelandic representative of IFAW for 17 years. He left the organisation in 2020 and now he has been working as programme manager for Icewhale, the Icelandic Whale Watching Association formed by Icelandic whale watching operators. He is an expert on Icelandic whaling and has been at the front of the anti-whaling campaigning in Iceland for many years. He is the right person to ask about the recent news, but first I asked him to summarise what the Icelandic whaling industry was composed of:
“They were just two companies. They were a little bit more when it came to the minke whaling but basically two. One, the main minke whaling company, and then the fin whaling company. The fin whaling company has been run by a company called Hvalur (or Whale inc.) which is actually an umbrella company as well for several other businesses in Iceland, including fisheries, fish plants and technology. And the other company, much smaller, was founded around minke whaling, and called itself Hrefnuveiðimenn ehf, ‘minke whaling association.’ And I think they looked at themselves also as a sort of an umbrella organization, although they never really functioned as such, but they were contracting about 95% of the minke whaling that took place this century. The biggest owner and the CEO of Hvalur inc. is Kristján Loftsson. Gunnar Bergmann directs the smaller minke company.”
I remember Kristján Loftsson. I remember this serious-looking bearded multi-millionaire with a receding hairline — now in his mid-70s — always making defiant statements to the press. When I was working on this issue people used to say that he was the Icelandic whaling industry itself. That it was pretty much driven by him. It did not matter what the public or politicians thought, if he wanted to kill whales, this is what he would do, and nobody would dare to stop him.
Between 1987 and 2003 commercial whaling had ceased in Iceland, but then it resumed led by Loftsson almost as if it was a matter of national pride — or even national independence. The majority of Icelanders supported him. This is often a common reaction of isolated nations that feel overshadowed by external foreign demands of an ethical nature. They become defensive, and if prominent citizens publicly sell the issue as a matter of identity, then they will be seen as heroes. Loftsson managed to link the two types of whaling and made them an issue of Icelandic identity.
Sigursteinn explains the difference between the two types of whaling in Iceland, and how their fate is connected:
“The activity is very much different in size, with the size of minke whales, more than 20 times smaller than the fin whales. But the hunting grounds are also different. The hunting grounds of the minke whale were, obviously, much more of concern of the whale watching here than the fin whaling, which was taking place 150 miles west of the country, and not impacting directly the whale watching. So, in that sense, they are quite different. But the minke whale was always a key to the heart of the public, and a key to the politicians. People are still eating this product at certain times of the year. That was never the case with the fin whales.
One of the successes of the anti-whaling movement in Iceland in recent years was to join forces with the whale-watching operators. Together, they convinced the government to create exclusion zones near the coast where minke whaling was banned, and the whale watchers business could operate freely, knowing there would be whales to watch in those areas. That forced minke whalers to look for these whales further into the ocean, where they are more difficult to find. In 2020, Gunnar Bergmann Jonsson, managing director of the Icelandic minke whaling company, told the media that it was no longer profitable to hunt for minke whales in Icelandic waters and he would be ceasing whaling for good. Sigursteinn explains more:
“In 2017 we managed to end the minke whaling by taking their hunting grounds from them, enlarging the whale watching areas, and then getting the Faxafloi Bay protected, which was the main hunting area of the minke whale — with more than 80% of the minkies hunted there. When you lost that, you sort of lost the connection to the population, and so this was the beginning of the end.
That was the big thing that made minke whaling stop. And this had a huge impact on Loftsson as well. Losing the political support that you enjoyed by killing minke whales, and not being able to present whaling as a sort of a national sport or national heritage, a tradition, and that sort of thing.”
Is What the Papers Say True?
I asked Sigursteinn if the reporting in recent news about Icelandic whaling was accurate. He replied the following:
“It’s an exaggeration of what the Minister of Fisheries said. And it’s not accurate. Yes, you can read through her article, and you can obviously see that she is not fond of whaling — and this is something we all knew. She has made declarations before in that regard when she was Minister of Environment some years ago. So, we all knew her personal opinion on it. What she is saying, basically, is that as things stand now, with no commercial whaling having taken place for three years since 2018, it is unlikely that new licenses would be issued for four or five years of whaling, when the licenses that are in effect now, through this year and next year, will expire.”
I asked Sigursteinn if COVID had anything to do with the absence of whaling since 2018, as Loftsson had mentioned it in an interview:
“I think it has very little to do with COVID because in 2018 there was no COVID — and in 2019 either — but we had no whaling. So, I don’t think it has much to do with that, and I just think it’s sort of a coincidence that it happened. I think it was definitely in 2020, and last year, for sure. It was a good excuse for not going out, but it’s certainly not a reason for why it hasn’t been taking place since 2018.”
I asked if the fact that Japan resumed commercial whaling had something to do with it as reported in the press because Icelandic fin whale meat was traditionally exported to Japan.
“I think there are several issues, but the local whaling in Japan was one of the factors because then you had much more fresh whale meat on the market — so you were not only adding the frozen fin whale meat to another frozen real meat.
I think the main reason why Loftsson decided to stop in 2018 was that he was totally isolated. He was isolated with minke wailing ending, with the political situation in Iceland, with hardly any politician standing up to defend him and to talk his points. With dwindling markets, of course, but still, when people are saying he stopped because of the market in Japan, there was nothing new about him having a hard time selling the fin whale products in Japan. I think for Loftsson it was incredibly important for him, always, to use fin whaling as a tool, as a sort of declaration of independence.
When we managed to absolutely end minke whaling by taking away all their hunting areas with the arguments of the whale watching industry, Loftsson was isolated.”
No Commercial Whaling Does Not Mean No Whaling
Despite there has not been any commercial whaling in Iceland since 2018, Sigursteinn recently discovered that last year one whale was hunted, and most people don’t seem to know about it.
“I think is important to stress that there was a minke whale hunted last year and nobody knew that, before she [the Minister] came out with this article. I was in contact with the fisheries directorate this morning and they have not presented any information about this whale killing that happened last year. This is something that worries me.
One whale is, of course, one whale too much. There’s no need to panic about it but what matters here is that there is a danger that there will be whaling continued in one form or shape without the surveillance — the little surveillance. I am asking the fisheries how this was surveyed, where this whaling took place, at what time, because if this was taking place inside the whale watching area, or the banned area in the Faxafloi Bay, we have a serious situation where they might be making a precedent, checking out if they can get away with it.
For the last years I’ve always said that, in effect, commercial whaling ended in 2018. I’m sure about that. There will be no whaling. I’m pretty certain about that. That it won’t be conducted again in the way it was. But what I’m afraid of is that we will have some sort of a piracy whaling here and there without knowing the numbers, without knowing where it takes place, without knowing if they are going for the calves.
So, I think it is much too early to celebrate. And what the Minister is saying, basically, is that, as it stands now, with no whaling, it is unlikely that the new licenses will be issued. That’s obvious. She didn’t have to say that. I don’t think there is any news in that statement.
And this has happened before. If Loftsson, for political reasons, for example, would decide to go fin hunting for one season, even if he would have to ditch all the carcasses or whatever, he certainly could do it. He has the means, and he has the money to do it. If he wants to make a statement just so that this statement from the Minister is no longer valid, he can do it because, obviously, is very different not to issue a license than to ban the practice. That is not what they’re talking about, banning the practice. And this is the way the misunderstanding goes outside Iceland. That the Minister was declaring the end of whaling or the ban of whaling. There was no such thing happening in this article.”
Changing Times in the Land of Ice
Although there are always isolationist and independentist forces driving any nation, there are also integration and globalisation forces at play. And Iceland, although not being a member of the EU, it’s a progressive country looking forward, not backwards. Sooner or later the animal rights and conservation arguments against whaling would outweigh the “it’s a tradition” and “don’t tell us what to do” arguments. We can see this happening already on several fronts. One of them is the switch in public opinion:
“When whaling was resumed in 2003, about 70% of the population was pro-whaling. And in 2017 and 2018 the Gallup polls that were contracted around the time when the whaling was ending, only around 30% were in support of it. We had of course as many undecided, about 30%. We knew we wouldn’t have a majority, that would never happen. I always said that in 100 years we would never have the majority of the population in this country, with the history that we have, and with the interest of the fisheries and all of that, against something like this. But to have a minority for it, and to have a bigger number of undecided, was a victory, and it was a huge blow to Loftsson.”
Another factor was the growth of the whale watching industry, which grew by 15-34% annually from 2012 to 2016.
“In 2016 we reached the peak with a lot more people going whale watching than the total population of Iceland. I’m not sure if it will reach the same peak and I’m not sure if it should, because, of course, there is a growing concern also about whale watching not being a disturbance for the whales. But there will always be some disturbance from any human activity, of course, and that’s why we have been focusing so much on a code of conduct, and I have been so busy with it in the last years. Actually, more concerned about that than with whaling because, I kind of think of this as mainly history — although we have to be aware that there can be some setbacks. But when you have such an interest in seeing those animals in their natural habitat we have a very good frame of how to do it.”
Another change happened in minke whale eating habits in Icelanders.
“It has changed incredibly, of course. During most of those years, we were working with whale friendly restaurants and labelling them, promoting them. And that was a program that worked very well with our volunteers. In a couple of years, we managed to bring down 50% of the number of restaurants selling whale meat in Reykjavik (2014-16). Now, you really have to try hard to find a restaurant that is selling this, and the meat that is available here has been Norwegian. I have been asking the food and health authorities here about how they are checking this Norwegian minke whale meat as we know that there is a higher level of mercury and PCV in Norway than here, for some reason.
The killing of one minke whale last year, without any information about where it happened or what that was, how much meat was taken from that minke whale, or if it was a calf, is alarming. They could basically go for two to five minke whales a year for sport and sell it to restaurants. And to those annual midwinter parties where people are eating disgusting old food. I think, therefore, it is very important to react to that immediately.”
And then the change of attitude of politicians:
“I think the biggest change we made when it came to the political parties was 2013 when we managed to get all political parties in Reykjavik — because the political spectrum is the same on a national level as it is a local level— with us about protecting minke whales in the Faxafloi Bay. What has happened, basically, in the last seven or eight years, is that it has gone from being either pro-whaling policy or sort of looking at individual interest policy, to protecting the bay here because of the tourists’ interests. That was obvious to all political parties: left, right, and centre. They would not say ‘we’re against wailing’ but ‘we are just against it here because of the tourists.’
I think we can say that there is no pro-whaling party anymore in Iceland… people just tried to avoid this subject completely. And what is interesting is that the Minister who wrote this article that everybody is wrongly quoting, I think she was basically testing the waters to see if there would be reactions to this. Of course, there have been international reactions, and that must be expected, but there has been no reaction domestically. Neither positive nor negative, which is good.
The fact that nobody from the Progressive party, Coalition party, or the Independent party, is so much as commenting on what the Minister says in this article shows that they can’t disagree with it. How can you disagree when there has been no whaling for three years? They are not using the quota they were given. How can you argue that it’s necessary to continue with something that you don’t use? They’re just stating the obvious. But at the same time, by stating the obvious, instead of ignoring it, she is testing the waters. This is to see if they will rise up once again saying that she is harming Iceland’s interests, or that she is working for the interests of the lunatics abroad.”
Ban or No Ban?
That is the question. So, I asked it to Sigursteinn:
“I think it’s very unlikely that there will be a ban in 2024. I think, most likely, what will happen is that there will be no whaling until 2024, and there will be a zero-quota issued then. And there will be no new five-year licenses. So, I think most people, including powerful people within the Progressive party and the Independent party, would welcome this outcome. That this sort of dies out quietly.
We still have laws in this country permitting and encouraging whaling. I don’t think it’s likely that this government will make a change to those laws. They will also try to forget about the fact that we have those laws there, and just don’t rock the boat too much.
So, I think that when the licenses are expiring they will ask the Minister of Fisheries to skip making a statement about this or anything like that, but just let those dates pass and if there are some foreign organizations that want to get attention out of it, let them do it. But, domestically, ‘let’s try not to make this too embarrassing for anybody’.”
That’s good enough for me. Bans are only tools for abolition, and if you can get abolition without bans, you may want to choose that option if it is easier and faster. However, without an enforceable ban, there is always the risk of “sport” whaling, or of people going out on rare occasions to kill some whales to get food for a traditional celebration. But without commercial whaling, and the public, politicians, and restaurants no longer seeing whales as food, but as beings to be admired alive, with time, not even the clandestine “one-off” killings may happen, as there will not be people interested in whale meat anymore.
Some bans, like the ban of foxhunting in England and Wales, achieved with the Hunting Act 2004 — mostly by the support of the Labour Party in power at the time — are so linked to particular political parties that the opposite parties can jeopardise their enforcement for decades. In this case, a ban was necessary due to the defiance of the then powerful hunting fraternity, but 17 years later the ban has not been properly enforced yet, and the Act needs strengthening. Abolishing hunting in the UK is still a work in progress.
But if you can get the abolition of commercial whaling in Iceland before you get to a ban, that may prevent a long time of enforcement problems and avoid political parties to make their opposition to the ban as part of their identity— as it happened with the Conservative Party in the UK with hunting, although fortunately, this identity link has been evaporating in the last few years.
One day, Kristján Loftsson will be a very old man with no energy left in him to defy alone the entire world. And the Hvalur 8, Hvalur 9, Hrafnreydur, and Hafsteinn will end up rotten in a ship scrapyard.
I am looking forward to the day I completely forget about them.
The day when whaling is only history.