Mark SimmondsDirector of Science

Killing fin whales at sea has always been a major welfare concern.


The Iceland Whaling Saga continues

September 26, 2023

This summer the whaling issue in Iceland has made news all over the world and a big question mark hangs over its future. Mark Simmonds, the OceanCare Director of Science details the latest developments in this saga in his blog.

Iceland’s whaling

This summer an epic battle has been playing out in Iceland over the future of whaling there. I will describe here what I understand has happened and, as background, I note that Iceland has two large whaling ships that are operational. Their size matters as they are big enough to take fin whales, one of the largest animals ever to have lived, and this species is the focus of the whalers’ interests because of the high value of their meat in the Japanese marketplace. One company is involved in the hunting and, from their perspective, this is all about that one export opportunity. The primary hunting device is an explosive-tipped harpoon that is fired from a harpoon canon. The harpoon is meant to hit the whale in the region of its head and explode but to remain intact enough to allow it to be embedded by its barbs so that the whale’s body can be hauled back to the hunting vessel using the rope attached to the harpoon. If the whale is not killed by this first harpoon strike, then a second harpoon is usually fired into it.

The Icelandic whaling fleet is normally active over the better weather months of the Nordic summer. Calmer seas and better visibility make it easier for them to find their giant quarry, kill them and then haul their huge dead bodies, tied alongside the vessels, back to the land-station on the Icelandic mainland where they are processed.

Whaling halted and then resumes

However, in June this year before the ships could be deployed for the 2023 hunting season, the relevant Fisheries minister, Svandís Svavarsdóttir, announced that whaling would be temporarily banned based on the animal welfare concerns raised in a report on how the whaling had been conducted in 2022. This was the first year that independent observers had been sent out on the whaling boats. Their report showed that the whaling did not meet the requirements of the relevant Icelandic animal welfare laws.

There was some challenge to this interpretation but basically the expert review’s findings still stand. In the intervening months, the two boats remained in port but another review was also conducted. This time the focus seemed to be to consider if whaling could be made more efficient (although it seemed to be more general than this and the review also commented on economic aspects) and, at the very end of August, the same minister announced – amid challenging political dynamics – that the ban would be lifted. There would be tighter restrictions on the whaling activity, although it seemed that these new restrictions would not apply until later in September.

The new restrictions specify some aspects of the equipment that should be used and the training of those involved, matters that might have been expected to be in play anyway and which seem unlikely to have any real impact on how whaling is conducted. However, importantly, these new rules include that whaling should be conducted during daylight and under conditions likely to result in immediate death, considering factors like wave height, weather conditions, and visibility.

With the ban lifted, the two whaling vessels did not immediately leave port. They were delayed by a combination of the weather and two protestors who climbed up the masts and held a vigil there for over 27 hours before they were removed. Photos from the dockside at this time also showed protesting Icelanders standing in front of the vessels with banners in Icelandic.

And again, whalers violate national provisions

Eventually the whaling vessels set off on 6th September. When they brought the first bodies in, it was apparent that two whales had been struck twice. Then an extraordinary thing happened. The relevant authorities, acting on the report of their observers on board confined one of the vessels to port. The authorities noted that one fin whale was hit by the first harpoon “outside the designated target area” and that the follow-up shot was not administered until approximately 30 minutes later. Clearly the animal’s suffering was prolonged. So this was reported as a violation of both animal welfare laws and the new whaling regulations. The suspension will remain in effect until “corrective measures” have been implemented and verified by the relevant authorities. What these corrective measure will be is unclear.

It was also reported that whalers had been operating in conditions of poor visibility. In fact, it was as if the whaling crews had acted in defiance of what they were being told to do. Many observers were surprised that the whole whaling operation was not halted at this point and both vessels prohibited from leaving port, as they work for the same company. However, at the time of writing, one vessel is still operating and the take as of mid-September is 11 whales, and expected to climb higher.

Icelandic MPs propose a ban

Then came a new twist in this extraordinary saga when, towards the middle of September, 15 Icelandic MPs brought forward a new draft law that, if passed would ban Icelandic whaling. By this time the whole world knew that the Icelandic government was very divided on this issue and we heard stories that the minister who announced the ban earlier in the year (and who had commented previously that whaling was not economically relevant) was being threatened by a vote of no-confidence. So how much support this proposed ban will have remains to be seen. Interestingly, in the relevant document, the MPs outline their arguments like this:

  • Whaling is against [national] animal welfare laws.
  • Most of the [Icelandic] public is against whaling.
  • Whaling is not Icelandic cultural heritage.
  • The economy and business relationships are at stake.
  • Whales are important in marine ecosystems as they bind carbon and produce oxygen.
  • Iceland should be a leading model when it comes to the protection of marine areasand animal species in the sea.

These are powerful and substantial arguments.

The economic aspect has been picked up and underlined by a message from Hollywood in the late summer with Leonardo Di Caprio and other movie stars stating that they will not come to Iceland to film if whaling continues. Given that the extraordinary landscape of the ‘Land of Ice and Fire’ has made it an excellent backdrop in so many films, this is not an insignificant threat.

However, whether or not this new law will gain enough support to pass remains to be seen and, if it does not, what are the implications of this for the future of whaling in Iceland? The stakes are high.

What next?

There is one more stanza in the saga that we know is yet to come and this is a declaration about the future of whaling that is expected before the end of the year but may wait on the conclusions of the discussions around the draft law described above, discussions that may go on into the New Year.

Iceland for many years has set its own quota blocks; five-year periods in which it details how many whales can be killed each year and other matters, such as a carry-over between years where the quota is not taken. This is similar to the way in which the International Whaling Commission (IWC) would manage commercial whaling but, in fact, does not because an entirely lawful international moratorium on whaling remains in place. Iceland’s self-allocated quota will come to an end with the turning of the year. So, the government will now have to decide if this bloody business will continue and whether a new national quota should be set.

I do not believe that there is any way that fin whaling can be made properly humane. Killing these large animals at sea has always been a major welfare concern. Their size makes them incredibly difficult to kill quickly and especially when combined with the issues arising from doing this out at sea.

The majority of people in Iceland no longer support whaling, its failings from an animal welfare perspective have now been well aired there (they can no longer be hidden away) and any economic benefit to the nation is probably marginal at best. So, will this be the year when Iceland finally steps away from this activity that taints its image worldwide? Let’s hope so, but there may yet be more twists and turns in this truly Icelandic saga before we get to the end of the year.

Primary sources