Icelandic whalers hunt both fin whales and minke whales in their waters. Almost all of the fin whale meat and products are exported to Japan, whilst most of the minke whale meat was served to tourists until outreach campaigns by WDC and others considerably reduced demand.
Due to the pandemic and other factors relating to demand, there was no fin or minke whaling in 2019 and 2020 and no fin whaling in 2021 (although a single minke whale was taken that year). Sadly, the fin whale hunt resumed in June 2022 and whalers from Iceland's sole fin whaling company, Hvalur hf., killed a total of 148 whales in the following months.
In 1982, the International Whaling Commission (IWC) agreed to stop all commercial whaling by 1986. Unlike other whaling nations, Iceland did not take out an ‘objection’, but once the ban was in place, continued a small “scientific whaling” programme, hunting a few dozen whales each year until 1989.
Iceland abruptly left the IWC in 1992 but rejoined in 2002, this time taking out a ‘reservation’ against the ban. Iceland resumed commercial whaling in October 2006, awarding itself a commercial quota to kill fin and minke whales. This move was furiously disputed by many countries angry at what they regarded as Icelandʼs attempt to bypass international regulations.
Between 2006 and 2022, exactly one thousand fin whales have been killed. This statistic is all the more tragic, given that the fin whale is the second largest animal on the planet. Each whale is special in its own right of course, but a creature this size also plays a crucial role in maintaining the health of the marine ecosystem. As if this was not enough, the fin whale is listed as ‘endangered’ by the IUCN (International Union for the Conservation of Nature).
Whaling as part of Iceland’s proud ‘seafaring tradition’
In Iceland, much support for whaling, especially amongst older people and those living in coastal and rural areas, is based upon the belief that whaling is akin to fishing and therefore, part of Iceland’s proud heritage as a seafaring nation which harvests its marine resources.
The whalers, supported by pro-whaling politicians and other interest groups, have long exploited this perceived link between whaling and heritage, further strengthened by the misconception that whales must be culled as they eat too many fish.
Encouraging support for live whales
Dispelling this myth is important, as is the need to create much wider visibility for our Green Whale concept.
Promoting responsible whale watching is also an extremely important argument against continued whaling: whales have an intrinsic right to life, and whaling is cruel and inhumane. It is an undeniable fact that every whale killed is one fewer to be enjoyed by whale watchers. Fortunately, Iceland has a very successful whale watch industry and the operators themselves have often spoken out bravely against the hunts.
Most Icelanders regard themselves as environmentalists but until recently, have tended to support local projects to protect habitats or species. Given the massive global movement in response to the climate emergency, it is both timely and vitally important that the Green Whale concept is much more widely discussed and accepted by Icelanders.
Fisheries Minister now recognising animal welfare concerns
The animal welfare issues around whaling and the lack of market demand have until recently, not featured much in the national psyche. However, in February 2022, there appeared a glimmer of hope, when Fisheries Minister, Svandís Svavarsdóttir, cast doubt over the future of the industry saying that there is now little justification for authorizing further whaling after the current permits expire in 2023.
She has also paid heed to animal welfare concerns raised by WDC and our partner organisations, following a season which has seen repeated welfare violations, including some whales landed with multiple harpoons embedded in their bodies. From August 2022, new rules require trained observers to document the hunts on each boat, and for the 2023 season, if it proceeds, a trained vet will additionally be required on board.
Facts about whaling in Iceland
- Icelandic whalers have slaughtered more than 1,800 whales (fin, minke and sei whales) since the global ban on commercial whaling came into force in 1986.
- Iceland refuses to recognise the ban and currently allocates its whalers a quota to kill endangered fin whales - the second largest creature on Earth - as well as minke whales.
- Contrary to popular belief, whale meat is not a traditional dish and local people rarely eat it. A 2018 survey revealed that only 2% of the population regularly purchases whale meat.
- Most of the minke whale catch is served up in restaurants to tourists.
- Almost all of the fin whale catch is exported to Japan.
- Demand for whale meat is declining globally, forcing whalers to dream up ever more desperate uses for whale products, including dog treats, iron supplements and even a so-called flavouring for beer!
- Whale watching is increasingly popular. Around one in five of the 2.2 million tourists who visited Iceland in 2017 took a whale watch trip (more than six times the Icelandic population!)
Iceland’s recent whaling history
2015: 155 fin whales were hunted and 29 minke whales were killed.
2016 and 2017: no fin whales were hunted after the whalers fell out with Japan over its meat testing methods but 46 minke whales were killed in 2016, and a further 17 minkes were hunted in 2017.
2018: We had hoped that Hvalur hf. CEO, Kristjan Loftsson, now in his mid 70s and given the many difficulties offloading his fin whale meat in recent years, would choose to give up whaling for good. However, the first fin whales were landed on June 22nd and by the end of the season, 146 fin whales had been killed, including a dozen pregnant whales and at least two rare blue/fin whale hybrids. We asked the Icelandic authorities to confirm that the consignment excluded meat from the hybrid whales, particularly since regulations prevent Japan from importing meat from a blue/fin whale hybrid; but observers at the scene said that it would have been almost impossible to separate out the meat as several whales were processed at once. Six minke whales were also slaughtered.
2019: In February, the Icelandic fisheries minister allocated a quota of 209 fin whales and 217 minke whales to be hunted each year until 2023. However, in June that year, Iceland's fin whaling company, Hvalur hf, announced that it would not be carrying out any whaling and the minke whalers also stayed in port.
2020: In April 2020, towards the start of the global pandemic, reports emerged that Hvalur hf. would not be fin whaling. Around the same time, Gunnar Bergmann Jonsson, managing director of Icelandic minke whaling company IP-Utgerd, told media that it was no longer profitable to hunt for minke whales in Icelandic waters and he would be ceasing whaling for good.
2021: Desite the announcement last year that the minke whaling company, IP-Utgerd, would close, a single minke whale was killed in August 2021. There was no fin whaling.
2022: Whalers headed out in June to kill fin whales for the first time since 2018. Minke whaling did not resume and there is hope that all whaling will end after the current quota block ends in 2023.
Minke whaling in Iceland
No minke whales were killed in 2019 or 2020, when Iceland's sole minke whaling company, IP-Utgerd, announced that it was closing down. However, a single minke whale was killed in 2021 but there was no minke whale hunt in 2022.
History of hunting minke whales in Norway
Minke whale hunts in Icelandic waters did not start into well into the 20th century. Unlike Norwegian whalers, who typically kill hundreds of minke whales each year, the number of minke whales killed by Icelandic whalers this century peaked at 81 in 2009, but has otherwise been below 60, dwindling to 17 in 2017 and 6 in 2018, its final year.
And unlike Iceland’s fin whaling, the number of minke whales killed has always fallen far short of the self-allocated quota (217) which is just as well, since indicators suggest that minke whale numbers in the region have been steadily declining over the past decade or so, with the reasons behind this decline still poorly understood.
Significantly, even scientists at HAFRO, Iceland’s pro-whaling Marine Research Institute, admit that they don’t know enough about the abundance, home range and behaviour of minke whale stocks in Icelandic waters: casting grave doubt on the Icelandic government’s often repeated claim that their whaling is ‘sustainable’.
Who eats minke whale meat?
When commercial whaling resumed in 2006, minke whale meat sold poorly. The Icelandic government has gone to great lengths to develop new products and encourage the public to try whale meat; however, their efforts have largely been unsuccessful and the consumption of minke whale meat by local people has declined steadily year on year.
A 2018 Gallup poll for IFAW (International Fund for Animal Welfare) found that 84 per cent of Icelanders said they had never eaten whale meat. Only 2 per cent said they had eaten whale meat six times or more a year.
Tourists are getting the message!
Most of the minke whale meat has been consumed by tourists, under the mistaken belief that it is a ‘traditional’ dish. However, a major public awareness campaign by WDC and other NGOs has been very successful in driving down tourist demand. A 2009 Gallup survey for IFAW found that 40% of tourists surveyed admitted to sampling whale meat in Iceland: by 2015, this figure had fallen to 18% and by 2017, had dropped still further to 11.4%.
Given that over 2.3 million tourists visited Iceland in 2018 and a further 2 million in 2019, it remains incredibly important to reach tourists with the message that whale meat is neither traditional nor a popular dish locally.
Minke whale imports
Shockingly, Iceland can legally import (or export) minke whale meat with Norway under their respective ‘reservations’ to CITES regulations: regulations which are respected by the vast majority of other countries.
For example, in March 2020, a shipment of 1,224kg of frozen whale meat imported from Norway was listed on Iceland’s statistical database, Hagstofa. (NB Statistics Norway logs the consignment’s destination as the Faroe Islands, which is not unusual as official paperwork relating to imports and exports is often vague or incorrect). [Source: Animal Welfare Institute]
Minke whale exports
The Faroe Islands has no CITES legislation in place, and regularly imports whale meat from Iceland and Norway. In 2006, 2008 and 2010, shipments of Icelandic minke whale meat with a total weight of almost 100 tonnes were exported to the Faroe Islands. In 2010, 25 kilos of minke whale meat were also shipped to Latvia, in violation of CITES and European Union laws. [Source: Animal Welfare Institute]
Help us end whaling in Iceland for good!
At times, the battle to end whaling can seem interminable and the obstacles overwhelming. But we have already had many successes in this campaign and with your support, we will fight on until whales in Icelandic waters are safe and free.
We will maximise our efforts, working closely with like-minded groups. Here’s just a few of our recent successes:
- We helped coordinate huge protests against the transit of fin whale meat through EU ports, including Rotterdam and Hamburg. In 2013, an Avaaz petition with a million signatures helped see a shipment returned to Iceland. We were delighted when the two shipping companies involved, Evergreen Line and Samskip, swore off carrying whale meat again.
- Tourist outreach campaigns have seen the percentage of tourists sampling whale meat fall from 40% in 2009 to 11% in 2017.
- We persuaded retailers - including the giant Findus Group - to put HB Grandi fish on their blacklist due to close links with fin whaling.
- We exposed the sale of fin whale ‘jerky’ dog treats in Asia and persuaded one supplier, Michinoku Farms, to abandon the product.
- We helped coordinate protests to the Icelandic authorities on the welfare violations documented in both the 2018 and 2022 fin whale hunts.
- We exposed these issues in a briefing to Commissioners attending the International Whaling Commission meeting in Slovenia in October 2022.
Fin whaling in Iceland
Who eats fin whale meat?
In reality, a decreasing number of people, mainly in Japan. Yes that’s right: Icelanders themselves eat virtually no fin whale meat so Hvalur exports almost all its fin whale products to Japan.
Isn’t it illegal to ship meat from endangered whales halfway across the globe?
No. The shocking truth is that Iceland and Japan have taken out ‘reservations’ against the listing of fin whales under Appendix 1 of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) and can legally trade this endangered species with each other. Iceland is the largest exporter of whale meat: Japan the largest importer.
Since 2006, Hvalur has exported well over 10,000 tonnes of fin whale products to Japan.
WDC has consistently condemned the escalating trade in whale meat, which undermines CITES. Analysis by the United Nations Environment Programme’s World Conservation Monitoring Centre specifically highlighted trade in meat from fin whales (as well as minke whales) as an issue of concern.
These exports have taken place regardless of declining demand from Japanese consumers. Despite slashing prices - and offering Icelandic whale products via Japanese internet stores including sites owned by Google, Yahoo and Amazon - sales of imported fin whale meat have been consistently poor, at times leading to huge frozen stockpiles. Sluggish sales have also forced suppliers to cast around for alternative ways to offload their unwanted whale meat.
Ships of Shame
- Until June 2013: Hvalur hf, Iceland's fin whaling company shipped its catch to Japan via EU ports, including Southampton, Rotterdam, Le Havre and Hamburg. However, massive protests that year by WDC and others forced a shipment to be returned to Iceland and since then, the company has been obliged to cast around for alternative routes.
- February 2014: 12 shipping containers of fin whale meat arrived in port at Halifax and transited Canada by train ‘under bond’ before departing from Vancouver for Japan.
- March 2014: 2,071 tonnes of frozen Icelandic fin whale meat travelled aboard the container vessel Alma round the coast of Africa, reaching Japan in early May.
- 2015: The container vessel Winter Bay carried 1,816 tonnes of frozen fin whale meat through the Northeast Passage, reaching Japan on 1st September that year.
- July 2016: The Winter Bay carried 1,529 tonnes of frozen fin whale meat from the 2015 season via the same route, arriving at Osaka on 9th September.
- September 2017: up to 2,000 tonnes of whale meat was exported to Japan aboard the Winter Bay, using fin whaler Loftsson’s favourite route via Russia’s Northeast Passage.
- November 2018: The Azure Coast (formally the Winter Bay) carried 1500 tonnes of whale meat to Japan.
Uses for whale meat in Iceland
Fin whale jerky dog treats
For many years, surplus whale meat from Japan’s domestic hunts has been offloaded in pet food, but in May 2013, WDC and other NGOs exposed the sale of Icelandic fin whale ‘jerky’ dog treats in Asia, including via Rakuten and other massive Japanese e-commerce websites. One Japanese company, Michinoku Farms, marketed the meat as a ‘low calorie, low fat, high protein snack’ targeting affluent pet owners. Our campaign quickly persuaded Michinoku Farms to drop the product.
At the time, we commented: “Sadly, this discovery does not surprise us. Turning beautiful and endangered fin whales into pet treats is utterly repugnant to right-minded people. Yet, this is no more than we have come to expect from Kristjan Loftsson, a man prepared to turn whales into pretty much anything as long as it turns a profit.”
Since January 2014, Iceland’s Stedji brewery has produced an annual ‘whale beer’ launched to coincide with the midwinter festival of Thorrablot. Despite the fact that most drinkers gave previous whale beers a definite ‘thumbs down’ on taste grounds, the brewery doggedly persists in its efforts to convince tourists that they really DO want to drink a beer brewed with sheep dung-smoked fin whale testicles. In 2018, the brewery boasted that this year’s offering “is brewed with whale testicle that has been cured with kambucha … making it good for the digestion.”
WDC says: “This obscene use of the intimate body parts of a beautiful, endangered whale is on a par with ashtrays made from gorilla palms, stools made from elephant feet or dried tiger penis as an aphrodisiac.”
In February 2013, fin whaler Kristjan Loftsson boasted that he was rendering down fin whales and using their oil as a ’bio fuel’ (an 80% diesel / 20% whale oil mix) to power his whaling vessels.
Bizarrely - and surely indicating desperation - in 2018, Hvalur announced that it is ‘considering the possibilities’ of using dried whale meat extract in iron supplements for people suffering from anaemia. The company claimed to be collaborating with researchers at the Iceland Innovation Centre and the University of Iceland and is also reportedly considering the use of gelatine, extracted from whale bones in a range of other “foods and medicines”. Hvalur hf. cited this new marketing direction as justification for resuming the hunt of endangered fin whales for commercial purposes but it is also likely to be a move dictated by recent difficulties in exporting fin whale products to Japan.
WDC says: “This really is a paper-thin excuse to keep fin whaling alive. There is no justification for killing an endangered species for any reason, let alone in the name of ‘medicine.’ These whales often die in agony, and for what? A quack supplement with no proven benefit or safety record?”
Seafood linked to fin whaling? No thank you!
WDC and other NGOs ran a successful campaign to expose the strong links between fin whaling and Icelandic seafood giant, HB Grandi. Until early May 2018, Hvalur boss, Kristjan Loftsson, was chair of the HB Grandi board and Grandi has previously allowed the whalers to process fin whales at their premises.
Our campaign really resonated with consumers, with surveys showing that over 90% would avoid purchasing seafood linked with whaling. We also received huge support from major household names, including Tesco, Waitrose, Marks & Spencer and Asda, which audited their supply chains to ensure that they weren’t purchasing from HB Grandi.
Our investigations revealed that a large proportion of the Grandi fish exported to the UK was sold by fish and chip shops and we were delighted to receive support from an industry which sells a staggering £1.2 billion worth of fish and chips annually!
The announcement that fin whaling would resume in 2018 made the link with whaling too much of a ‘’hot potato’ for Grandi’s marketing department to stomach and shares owned by Hvalur-linked companies were sold to Brim, another Icelandic seafood giant.