Mark SimmondsDirector of Science

My firm view is that there is no humane way to kill a whale at sea. The MAST report reconfirms this.


Icelandic Veterinary Authorities Speak Out Strongly on the Cruelty of Whaling

May 16, 2023

New evidence shows whales take a very long time to die. Mark Simmonds provides a personal perspective on the latest news from Iceland and put this in the context of the ongoing critical debates there about the future of whaling and how this links to whaling in Japan.

The modern whaling harpoon, like all its historic predecessors, has barbs designed to firmly anchor it into the body of the struck whale. This means that the whale’s body can be hauled to the whaling vessel using the rope attached to the harpoon allowing it to be recovered and processed. The modern harpoon is tipped with a penthrite explosive-containing grenade and is fired from the whaling vessel using a purpose-built harpoon canon mounted on the bow of the whaling vessel. This hunting method has changed very little in decades. The grenade explodes when the harpoon has penetrated the whale’s body to a depth of about 70cm. This is meant to kill or at least stun the poor animal, but what is often missed in discussion about whaling is that the modern harpoon represents a compromise between achieving a swift death, securing the body and keeping it intact to allow the recovery of the valuable whale meat.

One of the key lessons of whaling history is that big whales are incredibly difficult to quickly kill and, as they are breath-holding mammals with a diving physiology, it is also difficult to know when they are actually dead. Their brains and vital organs are surrounded by deep layers of blubber, muscle and massive bones. The skull of a large whale is a remarkable structure with many inches of dense bone wrapped around its large brain. So it was no great surprise that the recently released report on Iceland’s fin whaling by the Icelandic Food and Veterinary Authority (MAST) raised serious welfare concerns. The report was based on observations made in 2022 onboard Iceland’s two remaining whaling vessels, Hvalur 8 and Hvalur 9. The fin whale, the only species that they are now hunting, is a truly enormous animal, weighing 40-80 tons and with a length of 75-85 feet. Only the blue whale is bigger.  The fin whale’s size makes it a valuable target – huge quantities of meat can be taken from just one animal.

The relevant law in Iceland requires that hunters should cause the least possible harm and that killing should take the shortest possible time. Whilst MAST reportedly accepted that ‘best practices’ were followed – presumably reflecting that the killing method used is the same as in Japan and Norway (noting that no one has developed an alternative approach) – they also found an ‘unacceptable’ proportion of the whales suffered prolonged deaths. Based on observations of 58 whale killings, 35 whales (59%) were judged to have been killed instantaneously and five other whales showed convulsions and were judged to have lost consciousness either instantly or very quickly. Therefore, it is estimated that 67% of the whales experienced ‘instantaneous death’.

Of the unfortunate remainder, 14 whales (24%) were shot more than once, while two whales had to be shot four times. Median Time to Death (a standard welfare assessment measure) of those whales which did not die instantly was found to be 11.5 minutes. Two animals took more than an hour to die.

MAST will now ask an animal welfare advisory board to review the data and assess whether whaling can be practised in line with Icelandic animal welfare laws. If this is deemed possible, the government will need to establish appropriate regulations for the hunts.

The backdrop to this is that following a break in whaling, Iceland resumed killing fin whales last year. However, Svandís Svavarsdóttir, the Minister of Food, Agriculture, and Fisheries has stated that after the 2023 whaling season has concluded, whaling permits may not be renewed, and the results of the MAST report are likely to be important in the final decision making process. This evidence of cruelty will hopefully help sway the debate and it should not be forgotten that Icelandic whaling is all about making money in the Japanese market where fin whale meat (not a species hunted in Japan) is highly prized. There is little consumption of whale meat in Iceland itself.

In fact, a recent article in the Japanese press suggests that whale meat from Iceland is being strategically used to help stabilise supplies into the marketplace because whale meat from the domestic fleet is not plentiful enough to do this. The annual domestic catch is quoted as producing 2,000 tons of whale meat whereas the import from Iceland in February this year was 2,700 tons. The press report also states that Icelandic fin whale meat will now be on sale across the country alongside whale products from the Japanese whaling fleet, including via a new generation of public vending machines. The idea seems to be that by making more whale products available they will become more widely eaten and more popular. Time will tell if this ruse by the whaling industry will work but it seems that what Iceland decides to do about its whaling activity will affect the whaling of more than one country. The Japanese whaling industry also appears to be lobbying hard to increase the national whaling quotas.

My firm view is that there is no humane way to kill a whale at sea. The MAST report reconfirms this. However, perhaps its publication by Iceland’s own relevant expert body will help to convince the people of Iceland that the time has come to finally end this cruel practice. Commercial whaling should be confined to history – now we know better and it is time to show it!

Iceland Review: (8/5/2023): Whaling not in line with animal welfare, report finds:

MAST News (8/5/2023): Hunting of whales does not comply with the objectives of the Animal Welfare Act (In Icelandic):  

MAST Report (In Icelandic):–Frettatengt—myndir-og-skrar/MAR/Fylgiskjol/Hvalir_vei%C3%B0ar_velfer%C3%B0_2022_lokask%C3%BDrsla_MAST.pdf

Nihon Keizai Shimbun (12/5/2023): Whale meat imported for the first time in 4 years—attempting to stimulate demand by stabilizing supply (In Japanese.)

Nunny, L. and Simmonds, M.P. (2023) Hunting, Fishing and Whaling. In Knight, A., Phillips, C., and Sparks, P. (eds) Routledge Handbook of Animal Welfare. Routledge, Abingdon and New York.