Mark SimmondsDirector of Science

It is important that nations strongly express their concern about the cruelty and conservation challenges inherent in whaling to Japan and Iceland.


Fin Whales Back in the Harpooner’s Sights Across the World

June 6, 2024

In two different ocean areas unprecedented high-level debates are raging about whether or not fin whales will be hunted for commercial gain. The new threat to the population in the North Pacific comes from Japan, where the authorities recently announced that they were planning to add fin whales to the three other whale species that they are currently hunting there. In the North Atlantic, there is a hot debate about whether or not Iceland should continue to kill fin whales.

Here, Mark Simmonds, Director of Science at OceanCare, who has closely followed the machinations of whaling, including through his participation in the meetings of the International Whaling Commission for three decades, tries to shine some light on why the fin whales are at the centre of these two linked debates, and also why OceanCare and others are so concerned about these latest developments.

Commercial whaling was banned by the relevant international body, the International Whaling Commission, in 1982. This set all the commercial whaling quotas to zero and that remains the case to this day. The ban became effective in 1986 and remains a great conservation success and important to maintain. Whaling levels had reached a peak of as many as 72,000 killed each year in the 1960s and fell steeply after the moratorium came into force. Several nations that had been whaling, stopped and the huge reduction in whaling that followed allowed recovery of some (but far from all) whale populations. However, Norway, Iceland and Japan have continued whaling for commercial gain in fierce defiance of the moratorium.

Fin whales are the second largest animal ever to have existed, second only to the critically endangered blue whale, which they are closely related to. They can weigh up to 80 tonnes and reach a length of up to 26 metres (85 feet). They remain classified as vulnerable worldwide and may live, if allowed to do so, for some 90 years.

Iceland at the cross-roads

The media in Iceland have been indicating in the last few days that the decision on whether or not the hunting of fin whales will be relicensed there is imminent.

Last year, we witnessed an exceptional situation when whaling was halted in Iceland because of concerns about its cruelty. A further period of government-led review followed, which coincided with most of the summer whaling season. Finally, the two boat whaling fleet was sent out only to have one boat returned to port after only a few days when it was found to have failed to follow the required regulations on whaling, leaving a critically injured whale to die in undoubted agony for many long minutes before a second harpoon was fired to finish it off. Only 24 whales were killed in 2023, set against a nationally-allocated quota of up to 209.

The comprehensive review of whaling in Iceland that has been ongoing over the last two years has included consideration of first-hand reports from observers on the whaling ships and also more broad-based reviews of the activity, including its economic aspects and legality. It has also extended to wider consultation with the Icelandic and other public and, in fact, anyone was able to write in with a statement to one of the government-led processes. This included messages from Hollywood A-listers, such as Jason Momoa, and conservation leaders, including Jane Goodall, providing poignant calls for the killing to end. The Hollywood stars have also threatened not to come to Iceland – a popular venue for filmmakers because of its unusual volcanic landscapes – if whaling continues.  We also know that the majority of the population in Iceland does not now support whaling (according to a survey from last year 53% of citizens are against whaling and only 29% are in favour).

On the other side of the debate, the one and only whaling company in Iceland is arguing strongly that the government owes it money for lost whaling days and profits and is threatening legal action. However, there is still a legal review process running conducted by a working group set up by the Prime Minister and which is not set to conclude until the autumn. New information from the observers who monitored the limited whaling that occurred last year is also now under review.

The whaling issue has been described as a ‘political rollercoaster’ in Iceland with politicians changing roles and motions of no confidence threatened against those that oppose whaling, as well as potentially other legal action. At the same time there has been a growing national campaign from some Icelanders themselves to close it down.

Japan’s Economic Nonsense

Meanwhile, Japan – which is incidentally the country making Iceland’s whaling valuable by buying all of its fin whale meat – has recently invested heavily in whaling and is, at the same time, sitting on vast stores of whale meat!

In May 2024, with considerable razzamatazz, Japan officially launched its brand new whaling factory ship, the Kangei Maru. This huge purpose-built vessel is 112.6 metres long, 21 meters wide, weighs 9,299 tons and cost about 7.5 billion yen ($48 million). Its crew numbers up to 100 people and it is claimed to have a range of 13,000 kilometres, which in theory would allow it to travel to the Antarctic Ocean.

This new vessel can process even the largest whales on board and then store the frozen meat in its vast freezers below deck. The huge investment by Japan in this vessel illustrates how much money has been pumped into the continuation of whaling there and, having made this investment, where is the escape route for the industry and the country?

Additionally, in a closely-related development, an official in Japan shockingly announced in May that the country was now planning to take fin whales, adding them to the three whale species they were already killing (Bryde’s, sei and minke) in the North Pacific.

To outside observers, and also to many who are closely following this issue inside Japan, this situation makes little sense economically or politically. However, the huge financial investment put into whaling seems now to be inevitably driving its expansion. In order to pay back all the investment, the industry needs to maximise its income streams. Fin whales are enormous and, rather literally, the whalers get more ‘bang’ for their ‘bucks’ (where bang equates to meat and other valuable products) when they land a fin whale. This is the original reason that they and the other biggest whales were so heavily persecuted in the 20th century

This situation is even more peculiar when it is set against the widely-reported falling demand for whale meat. It seems that the younger generation in particular do not like it much, finding it tough and odorous.

And finally, it is also clear that Japan has no adequate science to support its new fin whaling activity. (This from the country that for decades has claimed that the opponents of its whaling were being ‘unscientific’ and emotional.) The North Pacific population is not well-known and Japan cannot substantiate any claims of sustainable quotas. It also failed to report its intention to expand its hunt to fin whales to the Scientific Committee of the International Whaling Commission when it met a few weeks ago, breaking any pledge of loyal cooperation there.

Remedies and Actions

At this time it is clearly important that other nations strongly express their concerns about the cruelty and conservation challenges inherent in whaling to Japan and Iceland at every opportunity, including via appropriate diplomatic action. Japan’s whaling is not only uneconomic, unnecessary and cruel, it also repeatedly challenges the rule of international law, and Japan deserves to be held to account for this.

When Japan left the IWC in 2019 it also closed down one of its two long-standing whaling hunts (the one in Antarctic waters), leaving the North Pacific hunt ongoing. The cessation of whaling in the Southern Ocean Sanctuary was certainly a welcome step and some observers thought that they were witnessing a slow, wise and welcome retreat from whaling by Japan. However, the huge investment in the new factory ship, and now an expansion to a new species, belies this. Has the industry backed itself into a corner that makes the cruel deaths of North Pacific fin whales inevitable? Time will tell.

Perhaps the Kangei Maru can be repurposed for some other economic use that will not stain its currently pristine decks with the blood of cruelly killed whales. Maybe, for example, it could be a luxury whale watching vessel with an ice rink in its freezer compartment? In all seriousness, the Kangei Maru can be used for other economic purposes – it has in fact been designed to have that capacity, so there is a potential for a very different future for it if its owners and the government of Japan decide this.


Will commercial whaling be revived? Expanding the scope of fin whales, but the reality of the “time bomb” that the whaling company is facing. Published online in The Wedge Article by Dr. Sanada, June 4, 2024