As public opinion changes and consumption of whale meat declines, commercial whaling may be one step closer to a permanent end in Iceland and possibly the world. For the second year in a row, Iceland, one of three remaining whaling nations, will not hunt any whales.
Iceland already harvested the lowest number of whales among the whaling holdouts, which include Japan and Norway. Since resuming whaling in 2003 after a 14-year pause, the island nation has killed 1,505 whales. Recent announcements by the country’s two whaling companies suggest that the annual hunt may be coming to an end. (Whales are worth millions of dollars in the fight against climate change. Here's why.)
Gunnar Bergmann Jonsson, managing director of the minke whaling company IP-Utgerd, told AFP on April 24, “I’m never going to hunt whales again, I’m stopping for good.”
On the same day, Kristján Loftsson, CEO of Hvalur, told the Icelandic newspaper Morgunbladid that his ships would not be setting out to sea this summer.
One reason, Loftsson said, was the social distancing restrictions imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic, which would make crewing vessels and processing whales impractical. But Hvalur’s ships also stayed in port in 2019, and Loftsonn acknowledged that there were bigger issues at play. For one, his company hunts fin whales primarily for export to Japan, which has become a difficult market.
Last year, Japan ended 80 years of whaling in the Antarctic, withdrew from the International Whaling Commission (IWC), and shifted its focus to hunting whales in its own coastal waters and exclusive marine zone. The news was widely greeted with dismay by anti-whaling activists, while Japanese officials presented it as an act of defiance and principle.
The decision was more likely because consumption of whale meat in Japan has been falling for years. Per capita, the Japanese now eat only about an ounce a year, and as a consequence, approximately 4,000 tons of unsold whale meat is stored in a growing stockpile.
Loftsson told Morgunbladid that Japanese government subsidies keep local whalers afloat and make it impossible for his company to compete.
Requests for comment from Loftsson and Jonsson were not provided as of press time.
Another issue for Loftsson is that public opinion on whaling has changed, says Árni Finnsson, chairman of the Iceland Nature Conservation Association. “What has changed is that the fishing industry is not willing to support him anymore. They feel that Iceland needs to be able to export fish to the U.S. market, and they don’t want to continue defending whaling. I think he’s done.”
This change in attitude is seemingly a consequence of a dramatic shift in Iceland: Support for hunting whales has declined as the income derived from watching them has climbed.
Whale watching in Iceland is booming
Between 2012 and 2016, the number of people who went on whale watching trips in Iceland increased by between 15 and 34 percent annually, meaning that the yearly increase in whale watchers was greater than the number of people who went cetacean spotting in 2000.
In the northern coastal village of Hauganes (population: 137), the number of whale watching visitors rose from 4,000 in 2015 to 17,000 by 2018.
Whale watching trips that depart from the Icelandic capital of Reykjavik operate in the eastern part of a large body of water called Faxaflói Bay, which in recent years is also where minke whaling has taken place. In 2007, a small portion of the bay was set aside as a sanctuary to prevent whale watchers and whalers from descending on the same whales.
In November 2017, following a campaign by Icewhale, the country’s association of whale-watching companies, the government announced a significant expansion of that sanctuary. That effectively eliminated the whalers’ hunting grounds: Between 2007 and 2016, 321 of 335 minkes caught in Iceland were killed in an area now within the sanctuary’s new boundaries.
That loss of access also has coincided with a precipitous decline in domestic consumption of a food that, Finnsson says, wasn’t exactly looked at lovingly even during its heyday.
“When I was a kid in Akureyri in the north, minke whale meat was our ‘Wednesday meat,’ ” he recalls with a smile. “It was very cheap, and it was not the sort of thing a family would offer on Sundays. It was nothing good.”
By 2018, a Gallup poll conducted for the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) found that only one percent of Icelanders ate whale meat regularly, while 84 percent claimed never to have eaten it at all.
Much of the domestic market was increasingly geared toward foreign visitors, who were encouraged to sample it as a traditional delicacy. A campaign by IFAW and Icewhale, which sought to gently discourage tourists from eating whale meat, has caused consumption by visitors to fall by half since 2011.
The lack of enthusiasm for whale meat in Iceland is mirrored in Norway, where the number of whaling vessels dropped by almost half from 2016 to 2017. Among them, these remaining ships kill, process, and sell barely a third of the country’s official quota.
Iceland’s experience suggests that internal indifference and the rise of whale watching over whale killing could finally push global commercial whaling over the precipice.
“The last remaining whalers seem to be making an exit,” says Patrick Ramage, director of marine conservation for IFAW. “Hunting whales with cameras delivers economic benefits to coastal communities around the world, and Iceland is pointing the way.”