In 2013, Iceland’s Ministry of Fisheries and Agriculture announced that it would allow commercial whaling in Iceland to continue until 2018. Now, at a contentious turning point, Iceland’s leaders have shown nothing more than blunted discordance over the practice’s future in Iceland.

The consistency of complaints against the whaling industry this summer points to a growing disapproval of whale hunting in Iceland, but it has also exposed the government’s lack of clear policy consensus, which forebodes further stalemates stemming from deep political division and a potential lack of action on key policy issues altogether.

On Aug. 16, 2018, Guðmundur Ingi Guðbrandsson, the Minister for the Environment and Natural Resources of Iceland and a member of the Left-Green Movement, answered a formal query on whaling in Iceland posed by Þorgerður Katrín Gunnarsdóttir, the chairman of the moderate Reform Party.  

Guðbrandsson responded that he was prepared to reevaluate Iceland’s position on whaling, adding that he’s not convinced that the whaling practices are sustainable, as has been argued by the government and others, or that Icelanders’ interests are being served by the continuation of the practice.

In June, Gunnarsdóttir posed the same question to Kristján Þór Júlíusson, the Minister of Fisheries and Agriculture and a member of Iceland’s far-right Independence party.

Júlíusson responded that he believed it would be wrong to abandon Iceland’s policy on whaling, adding that it’s built upon the sustainable use of Iceland’s whale-stock and that the policy is based upon scientific counsel.

Saltwater in Icelanders’ Blood?

Ending the practice of whaling in Iceland and complying with international standards may seem cut-and-dry, but when commercial whaling resumed in 2006 after a two-decade-long hiatus, around 90% of the nation was in support of whaling. By 2013, that figure had dropped to 50%.

They considered it both natural and normal for a fishing nation, although Iceland is neither a whaling nation in a historical sense nor has the country ever depended on whale meat for sustenance.

Market and Media Research conducted a survey in Iceland earlier this summer, in which respondents were asked about their level of opposition to or agreement with the resumption of whaling in Iceland.

Graphic showing Icelanders stance on whaling.

MMR’s survey of Icelander’s position on whaling in Iceland revealed a nearly even split.  (English translation: Meg Matich)

The questionnaire was sent to women and men ages 18 and older, with representation across demographics and political party lines, but the results showed a divide: 34% were in favour and 34% opposed (31% claimed to have no opinion).

The division appeared to run along party lines; supporters of the country’s liberal left-wing parties were opposed to whaling in Iceland, while voters from conservative parties were in favour of the practice.

Decades of Back-and-Forth, Resistance to Sanctions

The International Whaling Commission has never expressed a formal view on the resumption of commercial whaling in Iceland, despite a long and tumultuous relationship with the country.

Iceland was an original member of the IWC, but left in 1992 after the commission refused to authorize whaling quotas above zero, only to rejoin in 2003, with the caveat that “under no circumstances will whaling for commercial purposes be authorised without a sound scientific basis and an effective management and enforcement scheme.”  

When asked to comment on Iceland’s IWC membership, the organization directed Guide to Iceland Now to a section of their website that specified that Iceland was granted re-entry into the IWC in a narrow (19-18) vote in favour of accepting the proposed reservation.

The country’s insistence that it not be subject to global laws is nothing more than an instance of exceptionalism. And the proposition’s “effective management” caveat is sufficiently vague to permit any number of violations, particularly in light of current political discord.

Loftsson: “If It’s Sustainable, You Hunt”

Kristján Loftsson, the CEO of Hvalur hf., is the face of the whaling industry in Iceland and the leader of the only company in the world that still hunts the endangered fin whale.

Environmental groups have denounced Loftsson and his company for decades, and radical activists even sank one of his whaling boats in 1986. But that hasn’t deterred Loftsson, whose credo is simple: “if it’s sustainable, you hunt.”

Ironically, Loftsson has stated that he “look[s] at [him]self as a conservationist,” whose work is no different than a farmer leading his cattle to the abattoir.

Earlier this year, the Ministry of Fisheries and Agriculture gave Loftsson’s company permission to hunt 238 fin whales. Iceland’s Marine and Freshwater Research Institute says that the fin whale population is sustainable, provided that the company adheres to that figure.

However, those quotas are due to run out in 2018. And if Kristján doesn’t meet his quota three years in a row (he hasn’t met it for the past two), then he may lose it altogether.

A Rare Whale Catch Ignites Debate

On July 7, 2018, one of Hvalur’s whalers hauled in its 22nd whale of the year. It had a darker underbelly, black baleen, and a bluish colour, all of which indicated that it was a blue whale.

Fin-blue whale hybrid caught by whaling company Hvalur hf, which continues its practice of whaling in Iceland despite animal welfare groups' demands.

Photo via Hard to Port Facebook

Later, a DNA examination by the Marine and Freshwater Research Institute confirmed that this was a fin-blue hybrid; its mother was a blue whale, and its father was a fin whale.

The whale’s hybridity created an important distinction: while it’s flat-out illegal to hunt blue whales, and the company could have been grounded on that basis, it’s not necessarily illegal according to Icelandic maritime law to hunt a hybrid.

Thus, there were no immediate legal ramifications for the company because the whale is considered nothing more than an anomaly.

The killing of the hybrid led to international outrage, which likely influenced the Minister for the Environment and Natural Resources’ on-record statement that Iceland’s whaling policy should be reevaluated not only from an environmental standpoint but also from a socioeconomic one.

…and a Lawsuit

Local organization Jarðarvinir initiated a lawsuit against the company in July 2018, positing that Hvalur hf. had not complied with laws about the proper handling of whale meat. Regulations enacted in 2010 stipulated that caught whales had to be processed immediately in an enclosed shelter (i.e., a structure with a roof).

But Júlíusson, the Minister of Fisheries, loosened the requirements of this aspect of whaling in Iceland at the beginning of this summer such that whales must be processed immediately, but not in an enclosed structure, as long as the processing is carried out in a way that prevents contamination.

The law was in Hvalur’s benefit because the company had never actually complied with the requirements of the 2010 law. But by the same token, its noncompliance with those same regulations from 2010 until May of this year (when the law changed) was illegal and is one of the bases for Jarðarvinir’s lawsuit.

The group’s legal counsel, noted human rights lawyer Ragnar Aðalsteinsson, further questions whether the Minister of Fisheries was, in fact, allowed to modify the regulations on whale meat processing because laws of that type are generally governed by international bodies, not domestic ones.

Aðalsteinsson has also specified that the company’s hunting license was limited to fin whales, and he believes that “there is no exception from that in the hunting licence or anywhere else. We believe it’s worthwhile to determine whether it’s punishable to hunt a whale that’s a hybrid if it cannot be considered a fin whale.”

Not the First Time the Government has Bent the Rules

Iceland’s government has bent the rules for Hvalur hf. before. In 2014, when it was apparent that the company had ISK3.6 billion worth of surplus whale meat, the company turned the frozen meat—including the bones and innards—into meal to be used for animal fodder.

However, The Icelandic Food and Veterinary Authority (MAST) denied Loftsson’s request to sell the meal on the grounds that it was not safe for animal consumption.

Loftsson then went to west Icelandic brewing company Steðji and sold them the whale meal—the same meal that had been deemed unsafe for animal consumption—to use in a special whale beer, which was to be sold only during Þorri, the old Icelandic month noted for its banquets of pungent delicacies.

But when the time came to bring it to market, the West Icelandic Health Department banned all sales of the beer.

Steðji sent a complaint to parliament, at which point the then-Minister of the Environment and Natural Resources, Sigurður Ingi Jóhannesson, who ‘postponed’ the ban for three months, during which time Þorri came and went, and the beer was stocked on local shelves.

The brand has continued to produce whale beer.

NGO’s Keeping a Close Eye on Whaling in Iceland

On Monday, August 20, the non-profit organization Hard to Port reported that the whaling company had killed a pregnant fin whale. Photos taken by the organization show three employees dragging the intact foetus away from its mother’s body.

Whalers pulling the foetus from its mother's dead body. Whaling in Iceland has sparked ongoing debate and surveillance.

Photo via Hard to Port Twitter

Hvalur hf. has hunted a total of 11 pregnant whales this summer. Unlike other species, without closer inspection and blood tests, it’s impossible to determine the sex of a whale, Edda Elísbet Magnúsdóttir, a whale expert, told Morgunblaðið.

Gísli Víkingsson, an expert at the Icelandic Marine Research Institute, says that pregnant whales are very commonly hunted, noting that it’s only illegal to hunt whales that are nursing (i.e., their calves have been born). This is unlike other types of animals in Iceland, like reindeer, which are illegal to hunt when pregnant. Whaling in Iceland, however, is on the whole a far looser practice than other forms of hunting.

Hvalur hf.’s brazen provocation of animal rights activists, as well as its noncompliance with whale-stock processing laws, may be its downfall. And everyone is watching.