Captain Ahab’s Second Chance

Photo credit: magic_bee (CC BY-SA)

By Ido Liven

A wooden plank, not more than half a meter long, in the deck side of the ship Bjössi Sör is now filling a gap that was there just eight years ago. Wearing a tattered overall and a cap, the current owner, Heimir Hardarson, is standing on the deck, pointing at the bridge’s side. Until being purchased by North Sailing – a company co-owned by his father, his uncle and himself – the ship was used for the hunt of minke whales along Iceland’s northern coast. Through this opening, Hardarson explains, the previous owners were loading the catch onboard the ship, or just pulling the tale and hauling the whale back to the port tied to the side of the vessel.

In its current incarnation, the Bjössi Sör has been cruising the sub-arctic Skjálfandi Bay in north Iceland in a search for whales – but this time, with dozens of tourists onboard hoping to see nature’s mightiest creature from up close. In the past sixteen years, being among the first companies in Iceland to offer whale watching tours, North Sailing and its fleet of six oak wood ships have been serving more than 300,000 tourists. Only few of them are aware of Bjössi Sör’s past and therefore wouldn’t notice the hidden scar it bears.

And as far as the international community is concerned there are several other Icelandic ships that still need to convert. The resumption of Iceland’s commercial whaling in 2003, despite an international moratorium in force since 1986, has been drawing fire from environmental organizations and governments alike, and has even become a bone of contention in the country’s accession process to the European Union. But in Iceland’s domestic public discourse, whale hunt is hardly an issue.

Much like other environmental disputes, this one also revolves around a largely limited scientific knowledge and its practical interpretation positions Iceland’s government as the seemingly lenient. Reservations expressed by many Icelanders focus, however, on the killing method – with explosive harpoons – that is seen as particularly cruel. Nevertheless, while whale meat is absent from most Icelanders’ shopping list, the reason is not a consumer boycott but rather apparent changes in eating habits, in part due to the 20 year long whaling moratorium.

Similarly, while fishing is one of Iceland’s most important economic sectors, the economic value of the whaling industry is quite limited. The rise of the tourism industry, however, embodies the growing popularity of the whale watching cruises. And so, with delayed beginnings of two consecutive whaling seasons, it seems the scales might be shifting.

In search of authentic Iceland

It was in the early days of the 15th century when Basque hunters searching for the Right whale – named for being particularly easy target – made their way to the remote island of Iceland. 500 years later, the rapidly growing commercial whaling has made its own contribution bringing several whale species, including the North Atlantic right whale, closer to the brink of extinction.

The efforts to manage whale populations through international cooperation aimed at maximizing the output for the long run failed mainly due to significant uncertainties rising from scientific research. Consequently, the International Whaling Commission, nowadays composed of representatives of 88 nations, decided in its 1982 annual meeting on placing a moratorium on commercial whaling. Since coming into force four years later, the ban hasn’t been lifted.

Nevertheless, Japan, Norway and Iceland have been engaged in the controversial hunt since several years. Challenging the international ban, supposedly by making a retroactive reservation to it, Iceland decided to resume its commercial hunt of two whale species, minke and fin, within its territorial waters in 2006. In the three years preceding it, Iceland conducted scientific whaling using a chapter in the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling that allows such cull.

“It’s in our culture,” says Hermann Bárðarson, manager of the Whale Museum in Husavik. “Partly, it’s historical because Iceland was dependent on the ability to exploit the fish populations and the nature on a scientific basis.”

Lodged in a former slaughterhouse, not more than sixty meters from North Sailing’s pier, current premises were designed to contain both the immense whale skeletons hanging on strings from the ceiling, and the rapidly growing visitor numbers, in part thanks to the neighboring whale watching businesses.

For many of the tourists traveling to Iceland for its pristine landscapes, whale meat is an attraction in its own right, part of the so-called authentic experience. And many restaurants in the capital Reykjavik are happy to offer anything whale from steaks to sushi.

Though, whale meat can also be found in supermarkets, in fact cheaper than other kinds of meat. Yet, 20 years long moratorium means whale meat is not the food of choice for most Icelanders, particularly of the younger generations.

Nevertheless, many of them view whaling as legitimate. What makes whaling controversial in Icelandic eyes is the hunting method. The use of explosive harpoons to kill these enormous animals is deemed by many Icelanders as a distinctly cruel way, as it entails minutes of suffer before the whale is dead.

“Well, it’s not like that,” says Gunnar Bergmann Jonsson, director of the whaling company Hrefnuveiðimenn. “The whale is actually killed in a split second.” Otherwise, the hunters would use a shotgun, “and that happens in one out of fifty cases.” Yet, the ethical aspect of the hunt can be a make-or-break, says Bárðarson. While supporting whaling he says, “I don’t want to eat animals that suffered when they were hunted.”

Law of the jungle

Whale products in Iceland’s domestic market come only from minke whales, hunted primarily by Bergmann Jonsson’s Hrefnuveiðimenn. The Red List of Endangered Species, administered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), rates this species in the lowest extinction level. The same list classifies fin whales, hunted only by Hvalur and intended exclusively for export, as ‘Endangered’ but Iceland’s waters are known to host the species’ largest population. Coupled with self-regulated quotas devised by the government-funded Marine Research Institute (MRI), Iceland holds an obstinate position that its whaling operations are sustainable.

“The whales are actually in a competition with us humans,” says Bergmann Jonsson. Ostensibly feeding on commercial fish species or on these fish’s food, whales are seen by some whaling proponents as a threat to one of Iceland’s main sources of income.

But it is a contested argument. “It is highly unscientific to go whaling by the argument that you have to catch whales because they eat so much fish – that is ecological nonsense,” responds Hilmar Malmquist, curator of the Kopavogur Natural History Museum and one of the more vocal anti-whaling figures.

An ongoing MRI study, the Multi-Species Model, has been trying to identify whales’ impact on commercial fish stocks, particularly the valuable cod. But according to Droplaug Olafsdottir, a whale researcher at the institute, there is still no clear answer since the underwater food chain is a particularly complex one.

And while the hunt itself is in breach of international law, the export of fin whales’ meat to Japan is prohibited by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES).

According to data from Statistics Iceland, the country’s main official statistics institute, the year 2010 saw Iceland exporting hundreds of kilograms of whale meat to Latvia and the Faeroe Islands, and a total amount of 764.3 tons of whale meat sent to Japan in six different occasions. The total value of these exports stands at almost 1.3 billion Icelandic Kroner (7.88 million Euro).

Most of these data, as well as records of two shipments to the Faeroe Islands during 2009, were exposed by the International Fund for the Welfare of Animals (IFAW). In response to the first disclosure in March 2010, the Icelandic Ministry of Fisheries and Agriculture confirmed that the exceptional shipment to Latvia was in breach of international law, claimed that the shipments to the Faeroe Islands were in fact fish meal wrongly quoted as whale, and avoided referring to the export to Japan altogether.

Ten days later, a third shipment bound to Japan was intercepted by Greenpeace activists in the port of Rotterdam. According to Statistics Iceland, this 149 ton load was valued at over 216 million Icelandic Kroner (roughly 1.3 million Euro).

In May this year, the Icelandic newspaper Morgunbladid quoted Hvalur’s CEO Kristjan Loftsson, saying that this summer’s fin whale hunt will be suspended, at least until late August, due to the situation in Japan in the wake of the earthquake and the tsunami in March and the ensuing nuclear crisis. Nevertheless, and despite the disclosure of Hvalur’s past exports by environmental organizations, data reveal that whale meat has been shipped to Japan in March and April 2011.

An international price tag

Though, it is the second consecutive season to start later than planned. With no special explanations, the previous whaling season started ten days later than originally planned, and in fact, not before the conclusion of the IWC meeting in Agadir, Morocco.

A compromise proposal drafted ahead of the summit was supposed to be a historical turning point. In a bid to find common grounds among the whaling nations and their opposition, the American-led deal proposed allowing the hunt for a decade more under a set of conditions, and chiefly smaller quotas.

When it seemed negotiations are nearing dead end, Hvalur’s controversial owner Loftsson, said in an interview to AFP news agency, “whales are just another fish for me, an abundant marine resource, nothing else,” but also added, “I would never participate to catch the last one.”

Talks eventually collapsed, and when the Icelandic news site Visir reported on the (late) commencement of the whaling season, Loftsson was quoted saying, he hopes to exceed the 2010 quota of 154 fin whales despite the looming uncertainty about the future of whaling. Three months later, at the end of the season, Hvalur’s catch, just six whales below the quota, was the largest since the international moratorium went into force.

The minke catch of 60 whales, however, registered a 25 percent decrease from the year before. When I met him at the onset of the season, Hrefnuveiðimenn director Bergmann Jonsson predicted a significantly larger figure, but also that the domestic consumption would stand at 60 whales without explaining what will be done with the rest of the catch.

Nevertheless, the young manager wishes to see his clientele expanding overseas. “We’re not exporting anything,” he said, “but hopefully we will, someday, to Japan.” These aspirations are supported by a report commissioned by the Ministry of Fisheries and Agriculture and released late March 2010 that argues, that export of minke whale products could yield nearly 270 million Icelandic kroner (1.64 million Euro) a year for 150 minke whales – effectively the difference to the last yearly quota.

Asked about such prospects, Ministry spokesperson Matthiason says, “if there’s market for it – then surely. But, those who are in the industry of catching whales, they will stop if it isn’t profitable.”

And indeed, the profit question doesn’t seem to have such obvious of an answer. Iceland’s economy is still recovering from the economic crisis that had hit it particularly hard in 2008. Fisheries make one of its main sectors, representing 12 percent of the gross domestic product and 38 percent of the exports in 2010. Whaling, however, amounts to a tiny fraction of that.

The Ministry’s ‘Macroeconomic Value of Whaling’ report from March 2010 concludes, “it seems economically viable to continue whaling in Iceland.

These results might, however, need to be reassessed at a later stage if experience shows that whaling has a significant and negative impact on tourism, environmental quality for Icelanders or the nation’s image.”

And tourism indeed makes another significant part of the Icelandic economy. The World Travel and Tourism Council projects the tourism sector to comprise a 4.7 percent direct contribution to the country’s gross domestic product in 2011, and data from the Icelandic Tourist Board show that whale watching tours entertained 36 percent of all visitors to the country in 2010. And in fact, comparing to revenues produced by whaling, the whale watching business has been proving to be significantly more profitable.

But numbers aside. “[T]he most important reason to understand why we do whaling – and this is often forgotten – is the principle,” Iceland’s Whale Commissioner Tomas H. Heidar wrote in an op-ed published in The Independent following the IWC meeting last summer. “This is about the right of a coastal state to exploit its living marine resources in a sustainable manner.”

Addressing the issue from a nationalistic perspective that views whales as an Icelandic resource, argues museum curator Hilmar Malmquist, stems from a “very common misunderstanding”. “None of the species that we have been hunting for commercial use are born here,” he says. “These are migrating mammals.”


Without withdrawing from other arguments supposedly in favor of whaling, Iceland’s insistence on maintaining the hunt as an expression of sovereignty has been most evidently disputed in the context of the negotiations on its accession to the European Union – an issue that is reflected by the divided public opinion within Iceland over the issue.

In a resolution from July 2010, the European Parliament came out in support of the accession process but stated that Iceland should cease its whaling operations. Iceland received an even stronger message last March when eleven governments – from Moncao to the United States and from Israel to Australia – delivered a joint statement against Icealnd’s ongoing commercial whaling and illegal trade in whale meat.

No doubt, Iceland is trying to resist both the international pressure and the implications that keeping its whaling industry alive would have – politically, economically, ethically and to some degree also environmentally. But Icelanders realize that their persistence might not prevail. “Maybe if the pressure is enough, and we want to join [the EU] enough, and they give something to compensate…,” Matthiasson said to me last year without completing the sentence.

Similarly, although whaling and whale watching in Iceland have been living side by side with the former hardly influencing the latter, some have been eying the alternatives. Hrefnuveiðimenn, Iceland’s largest company hunting minke whales, has just purchased its first ship last year. But on July 4th it will embark on its first ever “whale watching with whalers” trip, as described on its website. For 140 Euro each, tourists are promised to “see and hear [a] shot from our harpoon” and also enjoy whales both at sea and on the plate. But more than an additional income source, the whalers hope this would allow them to avoid installing the wooden plank in the ship’s deck side.

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