This Country Just Killed A Super Endangered Whale
“They’re basically using the whales themselves to go out and kill more whales. It’s shocking.”
On Friday, Icelandic hunters drove a ship out into the ocean to harpoon and kill a whale — and not just any whale. Their target was a 67-foot fin whale, an endangered species.
The killing of this fin whale marked the beginning of Iceland’s first whale hunt in three years — the last time Iceland hunted was in 2015, with hunters killing 155 fin whales and 29 minke whales for their meat. For this year’s hunt, Hvalur, the Icelandic company running the whaling operation, raised its quota to 238 whales — and conservationists and animal welfare advocates aren’t happy about any of it.
Iceland is one of the few countries in the world, along with Japan and Norway, that continue to hunt whales despite the International Whaling Commission (IWC) placing a global moratorium on commercial whaling in 1986. Not only does Iceland flout the IWC’s ban, but there isn’t a strong market for whale meat in Iceland, which leads many to wonder why Iceland wants to kill whales at all.
Very few Icelanders eat whale meat anymore, although the meat is marketed to tourists, Kate O’Connell, a marine wildlife consultant for the Animal Welfare Institute (AWI), told The Dodo.
“People are sold a bill of goods, literally: ‘This is a traditional Icelandic food, so you should try and eat minke whale meat while you’re in Iceland,’” O’Connell said.
Since so few people eat whale, Iceland ends up exporting a large amount of whale meat to Japan. In fact, since 2008, Iceland has shipped more than 8,000 metric tons of whale meat and blubber to Japan, despite a ban on the international trade of whale meat under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES).
Kristján Loftsson, CEO of Hvalur, has also said that he hopes to use whale meat, blubber and bones to make gelatin, as well as nutritional supplements and other medicinal products — and this news has animal welfare advocates particularly concerned.
“If he does plan on doing that, that will take us back to the battle days of commercial whaling, because previously, meat was not really the main driver of the whaling industry — it was all … the oils, fertilizers and cosmetics that were made out of whale products,” O’Connell said. “That was the kind of thing that kept the whale industry going, and if Mr Loftsson is successful in doing what he claims he is starting to do, it is a very bad sign for the future of whaling.”
O’Connell also explained that Hvalur fuels its whaling ships with oil from the whales it hunts.
“They use this mix — I think it’s about 70 percent diesel, 30 percent whale oil, and there’s something that I find repugnant about that,” O’Connell said. “They’re basically using the whales themselves to go out and kill more whales. It’s shocking.”
Since Friday, Icelandic hunters have harpooned and killed four more endangered fin whales. After they’re killed, the whales are dragged back to the whaling station in Hvalfjörður, where their bodies are cut up. Volunteers from Sea Shepherd UK, an marine animal protection group, have been there to document the whaling activities, posting photos and videos on the organization's Facebook page.
Arne Feuerhahn, founder of Hard to Port, a German animal welfare organization that's also been documenting the Icelandic whale hunts, noted that fin whales already deal with a number of other threats that could soon push the animals to extinction.
“[There are] the effects of climate change, entanglement in fishing gear, plastic pollution, noise pollution,” Feuerhahn told The Dodo. “Due to globalization, there’s more ship traffic out on the open ocean [which can lead to boat strikes], so there are a lot of threats to whale populations worldwide. It’s not just commercial whaling, and that’s just something that these people just don’t understand.”
Feuerhahn, who used to volunteer for Sea Shepherd Conservation Society and witnessed the Japanese whale hunts in the Southern Ocean, also believes that whaling is inhumane.
“It’s unimaginably cruel,” Feuerh said. “They shoot an explosive harpoon from a moving ship into a moving animal, and there’s no way that the people can guarantee that the animal dies a quick death. In most cases, it’s the complete opposite — the animal suffers for a long time.”
But thankfully, things are slowly changing in Iceland, and animal welfare advocates are hopeful that whaling may eventually end.
Warning: Graphic photo below.
“There are more people coming forward,” Feuerhahn said. “There was a protest just before the harpoon ship left for starting the hunting season ... where 40 to 50 people gathered around the harpoon ship and protested the hunt. That was unprecedented and hasn’t happened before.”
“Now the Icelandic people start to raise their voice, and that’s what will make the difference in the future,” he added.
O’Connell also explained that a local organization called the Icelandic Whale Watching Association has been running a campaign called “Meet Us Don’t Eat Us,” which has been highly successful in changing public perceptions around protecting whales rather than hunting them.
“The amount of minke whale meat eaten by tourists has dropped dramatically,” O’Connell said. “I think that it really had been a successful campaign. Back when they first started in 2009, about 40 percent of all tourists in Iceland who were out on whale watches said that they would try and eat whale meat. And thanks to a public education campaign, that’s now dropped to about 11 percent of tourists, so the amount is slowly coming down.”
“The public support for commercial whaling in Iceland is at its lowest point ever,” O’Connell added. “There’s about a third of its country that’s in support of whaling. In the past, it’s been about 60 percent. So there’s been a drop in support of whaling. I think more and more people are speaking out.”