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Whaling in Iceland: Tradition Under Siege

Photos of Icelandic whaling
Photos of Icelandic whaling
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“Many NGOs and anti-whaling countries see the oceans as some sort of giant zoo or sanctuary. But we look upon the ocean as a resource which we have a right and obligation to utilize in a sustainable manner for both ourselves and future generations.” -Tomas Heidar, Iceland’s whaling commissioner

“Whaling is part of our existence. If the EU doesn’t like our whaling, that is their decision.” -Jon Bjarnason, Iceland’s Minister for Fisheries

“They have some weird thing for whales here,” spoke an American tourist in Reykjavik. “I keep seeing these guys with t-shirts that have a whale’s tail on them with ‘Kill them all’ written under it.”

Hvalreki is the Icelandic equivalent for “jackpot.” Literally, it means “beached whale.” Iceland is an island country in the North Atlantic, whale territory. People have been hunting whales around here since stepping foot upon this jagged, wind swept shore. Iceland and whaling go together, like America and “all you can eat” buffets or France and berets.

I first arrived in Iceland with no larger primer in whaling than having read Moby Dick and watched Whale Wars a couple of times, but upon entering the country it became obvious that the issue of whaling was clearly on the social playing table. Large signs in the airports advised tourists not to eat whales — “Don’t let your visit to Iceland leave a bad taste in your mouth” — but in the streets of downtown there were a plethora of restaurants advertising whale meat, and doing so seemed to be a big tourist attraction. There was a battle going on here, and I sought to investigate it deeper.

The whaling tradition has been extinct in most of the world for the past 35 years, only Iceland, Japan, Greenland, and Norway currently engage in hunting whales commercially. In point, modern whaling is not a booming industry, but the continuation of this tradition is now a pawn in a battle of international geo-politics, special interest groups, and public opinion.

An Icelandic whaler working on a whale in Hladir, Iceland

“Save the whales” is the rally cry, activists are chaining themselves to shipping vessels that contain whale products as they dock in European ports, eco-saboteurs sank half the Icelandic whaling fleet and severely damaged the processing facility at Hladir, environmental groups are lobbying politicians, public outcry is being cultivated all around the world, and the governments of big and powerful political units like the USA and the European Union are doing what they can to sink their swords into the side of this industry. Right now, the Obama administration is debating whether to impose economic sanctions upon Iceland for their continued whaling activities.

The whaling countries say that the populations of a select species of whales have recovered enough to hunt them on a small scale in a highly regulated manner, while environmental organizations and many large and powerful anti-whaling countries say that whales are will always be a species at risk and hunting them should never be allowed again — even if their numbers show signs of recovery and stabilization. The issues inherent to modern whaling are having drastic political ramifications on a global scale — even standing in the way of Iceland’s consideration for induction into the EU — and are growing even larger with each passing whaling season.

I entered Iceland with many questions about modern whaling:

Whales are protected species, why would anyone want to kill them intentionally?

Why should Iceland, Norway, and Japan be allowed to hunt internationally protected animals?

What impact is modern whaling having on the global whale populations? 

Is the international movement against whaling a worthy cause to preserve various species of whales? Or does it amount to a trendy political movement whose motive has no real basis in scientific findings? 

Where is the dividing line between a single country’s sovereign rights and international law?

I took it as a mission in Iceland to find out the answers to these questions. When compared against popular international opinion, what I found was very surprising.

Hladir, Iceland, ground zero for the Icelandic whaling industry

Hladir, on the banks of Hvalfjordur — Whale Fjord — is ground zero for commercial Icelandic whaling. It was here that the only remaining whaling station in Iceland is located, and it is here that whales are brought to be processed when they are caught at sea.

“So, do most people in Iceland support whaling?” I asked the middle aged, portly and bald curator of a small whaling museum connected to a gas station in Hladir.

“No, I would not say that,” he replied, “but many feel that if there are alot of them, and they are right there, and only a few are taken, then it is just like any other fish.”

“What types of whales are still being hunted in Iceland?” I questioned.

The curator told me that Icelanders now only fish for minke and fin whales, as the other species are too few in number to justify taking. “The minke whales are only used for food, but every part of fin whales is used,” he explained. I pointed to a photo of a crowd of people standing around a whale that was pinned up to the wall of the museum, and asked if that was an example of a minke whale.

“No, that is a fin whale, the minke whale is much smaller than that, they are like big fish,” the manager explained, seemingly exasperated that I could confuse the teeny minke whale for the world’s second largest animal.

“There are 15 to 20 thousand mink whale just circling the country right now,” he added.

“About how many of these whales do the Icelandic whalers take per year?” I asked.

The curator sort of shrugged and answered simply that they are not taking very many.

As I spoke to the whaling museum curator, I looked out of a window to the fjord beyond. Sitting down on the bank were a couple of warehouses with cranes nearby and a dock. This was the only place in Iceland where whales are processed, and, I had to admit, it did not look like much. This whaling station, which should be used again when the whaling season begins in August, was once a US naval base during WWII. It was purchased by the Hvalur company in 1948, and has been the launching point of modern Icelandic whaling ever since.

I looked through some of the photos in the museum as I spoke with the curator, and saw images of Icelanders proudly standing on top of large whales, peeling their skin from the rich blubber beneath with large sickles attached to the end of long poles, muscular men reeling in their catch with large cranes, and the ships that still go out whaling. In many of the photos, there were crowds in the background watching the action. Truly, whaling is what gives Hladir a dot on the map — it is the only thing happening here.

Beyond the photos, there was a video playing on two televisions in the small museum, showing footage of Icelandic whaling throughout its history. It showed drawings of Basque whalers with hand held harpoons going after whales in the 17th century all the way up to the creation of the modern harpoon gun and its usage on whaling vessels in the 20th century and even today. The video ended with images of Iceland’s current whaling fleet proudly pulling a large whale into port.

Tools used for whaling

Two sluicing  sickles were proudly displayed on the wall of the museum, a huge vertebrate from an unspecified whale was positioned on the floor, a chuck of dried whale skin sat on a display case, and in the case itself was some products made from whales — scrimshaw artwork on bones and some vials of oil. I pointed to a photo of a mighty Sperm whale that had been hauled up on the shore that stretched out right below us, and the manager told me that this was the last time a Sperm whale was hunted in Iceland, and this was over fifty years ago.

Gauging my interest, the curator began telling me a little about the rules that the whalers here need to follow. He said that the whalers only have 26 hours to get back to port after they take their first whale, a safeguard against a whaling fleet taking too many animals at a time, as well as many other strict criteria that the whalers must follow.

“So all the whales up in West Fjord and all the way over to the north of Iceland are free,” the curator spoke, indicating that the whaling fleet would not be able to return to port in time if they took a whale from this area. “Once they get by here they are free,” he added.

“So there are lots of rules on whaling?”

“There has to be,” the curator countered.

I figured that I could believe the curator’s analysis, as the whales are pulled up to the whaling station that sits directly below his gas station, but I made a note to look into what he told me deeper, and found that his statements checked out.

An investigation into modern Icelandic whaling

Whaling began in the 12th century in Iceland. The strategy of this time was to just stick a harpoon into the side of a whale and wait for it to turn up on dead onshore. Each whale hunting operation would use specially colored harpoons so they could easily claim their “catch” once it washed ashore and extract the royalties from the action. Later on, Basque whalers would sail north and ply their trade in Icelandic waters, and the Norwegians soon followed.

Although modern whaling in Iceland seems to have been drastically influenced by the Norwegians, the practice has always been a part of Icelandic history, and the methodology of hunting whales became more refined throughout time. Norwegian whaling stations in Iceland soon turned to Icelandic ones, as Iceland firmly moved into the modern era in terms of whaling technology. In the late 19th century the rocket harpoon was invented, and whaling all around the world entered into its “glory age.” Due to this better technology, over 50,000 whales per year were being taken worldwide up through the middle of the 20th century. This proved to be too much of a take for the global whale stock to endure, and the populations of whales declined to a startlingly low level — many species were even pushed nearly to extinction.

By 1986, most whaling countries had long stopped the practice, and an international moratorium against commercial whaling was put in place. The whalers of the 20th century were taking too many whales, and environmental degradation, pollution, and collisions with ships presented new challenges to the survival of these large ocean mammals. In respect to this, whaling virtually ceased throughout the world.

In the first decade of the 2000s, upon data showing that a few species of whales have recovered their numbers significantly, post-modern whaling began anew. Japan, Norway, and Iceland took to the seas, and, on a very minor level, began hunting whales once again. After intermittent starts and stops in recent years where Iceland took very few, if any, whales, the industry kicked into high gear in 2008 and 2009, helping to meet the world’s demand for whale products in full. But “high gear” meant that Icelandic whalers took around 250 whales in each year, which was split nearly evenly between minke and fin whales. Last year, Iceland took 60 minke whales and 148 fins. These are truly not very large takes, but it is enough to rev up the international anti-whaling community to startling levels and to create a major political divide between a few whaling nations and the dominant geo-political organizations of the world.

To put post-modern Icelandic whaling into perspective, it is estimated that there are roughly 800,000 minke whales in the oceans today and around 30,000 fin whales in the North Atlantic region alone. Globally, contemporary whaling takes roughly 1,500 whales per year in total, a number which is heavily criticized as being over the actual commercial demand.

While it is true that nearly all whales are on the international protected species lists, I could not find any hard scientific speculations that show that contemporary whaling is putting much of a dent in their numbers. In fact, the population of hunted whales (and most other species) around the world are reported to be growing in spite of being hunted. There are actually serious propositions to intentionally “thin” the population of minke whale to enable the increased proliferation of blue whales. From my research, it appears that collision with ships, climate change, and pollution are far larger threats to whales than whalers, but it is whaling that has gotten the conservation groups and many governments up in arms.

Whales now hunted for meat

There is simply not a large global demand for whale products. Historically, whales were hunted for their blubber and oil — not their meat. The meat, being sold for food, was more often than not an inherent byproduct of whaling. In contemporary times, whale oil is not of much use and is of very little commercial value. Today, whales are hunted on a minor level to fuel a small global demand for meat. Only a few island nations, Norway, Iceland, and Japan engage in eating whale, and, even though legal, in none of these countries is the practice very popular.

Even in Japan — which is shown in the anti-whaling media as being a culture of whale eaters — eating whale meat is relatively rare. Eating whale in Japan is an example of a constructed tradition: whale meat was not eaten until it was added to lunches in public schools during the restoration period following WW2 due to a scarcity of other meats. Eating whale in Japan is not a very old “tradition” in the least. But at a very low level, it is a tradition that has stuck and, in contemporary times, whale meat has become a delicacy. Even still, most Japanese people do not eat whale regularly, if at all.

The same goes for Iceland. It is reported that only 2% of the population regularly eats whale, and 50% of the whale meat sold in the country goes to tourists who are told that eating such is a traditional Icelandic dish. In most cases, it is my impression that tourists eat whale in Iceland out of curiosity to try a new food, and the fact that eating this meat in their home countries is illegal probably adds a risky layer to the action.

It is my impression that modern humans simple don’t consume whale on a mass level, and this is attested to by the millions of pounds of whale meat that is currently sitting in storage in Iceland and Japan. Even though both countries fiercely defend their right to hunt whales, neither have much of a market to sell whale meat to.

There is a reason for this: many people tend to feel that whale meat just doesn’t taste very good. I surveyed tourists who sampled whale in Iceland as to what they thought of it. Almost invariably, they would just shrug their shoulders with dispassion, say “it’s alright” or “it wasn’t very good.” Few seemed as if they would eat whale again after trying it once as a novelty. On a large scale, even during the heyday of commercial whaling, the meat from whales was never very commercially viable. In modern times, whale meat is either a North Atlantic tourist novelty or a fancy Japanese delicacy: it is not something that is going to be served en masse in the downtown burger joints of any country, now or, probably, ever. The taste element simply does not seem to be there.

So why is there such a large global movement against modern whaling?

Part of the Hvalur whaling fleet

Save the whales activists

“Could you tell me a little about whaling in Iceland?” I asked a group of activist in downtown Reykjavik. The protester, who were standing in the street in whale costumes, holding banners, and handing out brochures to tourists telling them not to eat whale during their visit to Iceland, were pretty much all teenagers or in their early twenties.

A save the whales activist in Reykjavik

A blond girl holding up one side of a banner answered my question, stating that killing whales is cruel.

“Have you ever been on a farm?” I asked her.

She nodded her head no.

“All animals that are for food are killed cruelly.”

“But when whales are killed they take a long time to die. There is no humane way to hunt whales,” she replied.

“I don’t believe there is a nice way to kill any animal,” I countered. “Smashing a pig over the head with a sledgehammer isn’t very humane either, but this is how it is done in much of the world.”

I was negging these young activist on, I wanted to know why they were standing in the streets telling visitors to their country not to support one of their home grown industries. The young girl just looked away from me for a moment. I was attracting the attention of her fellow activists. Good, I wanted someone to explain to me why Icelanders should not hunt whales. I was looking for an insider perspective to counter my research which showed that, statistically speaking, the adverse effects of post-modern whaling on the species they hunt is so insignificant as to be a moot point.

“Iceland is hunting whales to feed tourists,” the young activist spoke again.

“But it is Icelanders who are making the money from it, so who cares who they are selling the meat to? Didn’t your country just have a massive economic collapse? Isn’t there rampant unemployment in Iceland? Isn’t it a good thing that 200 Icelanders are provided with work each year?”

She agreed half heatedly.

“Isn’t it a long tradition in your country to hunt whales?” I continued.

She disagreed, saying that whaling was not an Icelandic tradition. I mentioned a few points of Icelandic whaling history.

“A lot of whales are being killed now,” the teenage activist countered.

I cited IWC stats as to how many whales Iceland is taking per year, which did not seem like a lot to me.

“If you really want to save the whales,” I added, “you should go afer the big industries of countries like the USA, France, Germany, and China who are polluting the oceans, the air, and taking other actions which are killing far more whales through environmental destruction than Iceland ever could by fishing.”

“We do that,” she explained.

Ultimately, these were animal rights activists that I was speaking with, not whale conservation activists. There is a big difference, as the former is concerned with animal welfare and hunting practices and not whether or not whaling should be banned on grounds of species preservation. Even if there were billions and billions of whales in the oceans these kids would still be speaking out against whaling because they feel that whaling is cruel. As my investigation was more focused on whaling from a conservation perspective, my probing of these anti-whaling activists for information did not really hit the mark I was shooting for.

“We are mostly here just because we find it cruel to kill the whales,” the girl stated clearly.

I nodded.

“Yes, it is cruel,” I had to admit.

Shooting an exploding harpoon into anything fit well within my definition of cruelty.

Icelandic whaling conclusion

Iceland is not a country of rolling plains and fertile valleys, it is a floating rock — a geological monstrosity that is four fifths uninhabitable. All Iceland has is the sea which surrounds it on all sides, and the fact that its very population is distributed around its coastal periphery attests to the fact that the ocean IS its main resource. To restrict the resource usage of such a people in what amounts to low brow political smokescreen and catch phrases — “save the whales”– is to cover up the reality of the situation:

Many of the big anti-whaling countries of the world have industries operating under their flags that challenge the continued existence of whales far more than Icelandic whaling ever could. Shipping, industrial fishing accidents, and pollution kill far more whales per year than a handful of Icelandic whalers would even want to. Rather than going after their own big industry that are destroying the oceans, they waste political bandwidth going after a truly insignificant opponent, and thus divert the blaming eyes of the world away from themselves. The sword of righteousness is all too often is grasped in the hand of the guiltiest party.

In point, contemporary whaling amounts to little more than a cottage industry of a few island countries and Norway. The debate over modern whaling goes far beyond the facts, the scientific data, and reason: it is a matter of national pride and the rights of the individual country in the face of large political federations that have divided up the world into large blocks of power. Iceland stands out in this climate as independent — standing alone politically as it does geographically from both the USA and the EU. “Whaling” is the word that comes out of the politician’s  mouths, but this fight is not just about about hunting whales: like children in a classroom, everyone must follow the same rules that are set by the headmaster. Iceland is the rogue in a rogue trouble maker, exerting its individuality in the face of geo-political conformity. There is no place for the country that makes its own rules in the this global political order.

“The nail that sticks up gets pounded back in.”

Obama, the EU, are pounding Iceland. This little island country is taking the blows and is standing firm in the corner of the classroom wearing a dunce cap. Iceland will maintain its individual rights, will continue whaling, at the expense of being expelled from the geo-political/ economic arena. It is my impression that Icelanders don’t care too much about whaling other than preserving their right to continue the tradition, to exert their right to use the ocean resources which surround their country, and to maintain their place as a sovereign country. Whaling has became a symbol of something much greater than the sum of its parts, it is the final battle cry of one country’s assertion of individual rights as it sits on the brink of being swallowed up by the bulbous glob of global power.

Sources:

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Filed under: Articles, Culture and Society, Europe, Iceland, Politics

About the Author:

Wade Shepard is the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. He has been traveling the world since 1999, through 76 countries. He is the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China, and contributes to Forbes, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3054 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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