Aboard a small whale-watching boat navigating the choppy seas of Faxaflói Bay off the southwest coast of Iceland, a guide encourages guests not to eat whale meat.
Estelle, showing whales and dolphins from the boat, says there is a campaign here against whaling. “Meeting them in person is better than eating them.”
Iceland’s decision to stop commercial whaling
Iceland, one of the few countries in the world to commercially kill whales, said in February the practice would be phased out by 2024, but has not yet been legally banned.
The decision was prompted by declining demand for whale meat, particularly after Japan began commercial whaling in 2019. “There is little indication that this practice has any economic benefit” , wrote the country’s fisheries minister, Svandís Svavarsdóttir, in the publication Morgunblaðið. However, analysts credit a 15-year campaign led mostly by Icelanders and local whale-watching companies.
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Whaling in Iceland
Whaling has been practiced in Iceland since the early 1600s. Yet it wasn’t until the 19th century that steamboats and explosive harpoons enabled American and European companies to hunt the creatures significantly.
Under the global ban on commercial whaling, Iceland halted commercial whaling in 1985 and researched whaling four years later. Commercial whaling resumed in 2006, however. Annual limits now allow the killing of 209 fin whales in Iceland for export to Japan and the killing of 217 minke whales for local consumption.
Since the practice resurfaced, a coalition of local whale-watching businesses have lobbied to end it, led by the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) and IceWhale. With the motto “Meet us, don’t eat us”, their campaign aimed to turn Iceland’s tide against whaling.
The whale is not considered a delicacy among Icelanders, contrary to popular belief, says Arni Finnsson, president of the Icelandic Nature Conservation Association, which worked on the campaign. According to IFAW, only 2% of Icelanders consume it regularly.
Instead, the country’s roughly 2 million annual visitors, many of whom believe it to be an Icelandic specialty, have become the biggest eaters of minke whales. Megan Whittaker, the chief naturalist of Elding, a whale-watching organisation, adds: “We had people watching the whales and then asking where they could go to eat them.”
IFAW and IceWhale have developed a strategy to end this practice. The IWAF launched one of the country’s most successful petitions in 2009, urging people to sign a declaration that they would not eat whale meat, which has already garnered around 175,000 signatures.
Since 2011, the campaign has sent volunteers to restaurants to persuade them to stop feeding the animal, and more than 60 restaurants have been designated as ‘whale friendly’. According to IFAW, which regularly surveys tourists, the campaign reduced the consumption of whale meat by visitors to Iceland by three quarters.
Meet us, don’t eat us
(Photo: Getty Images)
According to Belén García Ovide, founder of Ocean Missions, an Icelandic non-profit organization not involved in the campaign, “Meet us, don’t eat us” has had a significant impact on the government’s stance on whaling. . “[Politicians] realized that a live whale offered greater economic benefits than a dead whale,” she explains.
Whale watching has grown in popularity. According to the Animal Fund, one in five visitors to Iceland go whale watching, which brings in around $12m (£9m).
The movement to stop whaling has benefited greatly from the efforts of tour operators. Gísli ólafsson, owner of Lakitours in Iceland’s West Fjords, adds: “All the whale watching businesses have been like propaganda.” He says his tour guides have been talking about whaling on every trip for decades.
The fisheries minister said in 2017 that the “no whaling zone” would be increased, sending hunters further out to sea where there are fewer whales, making the sport commercially unviable.
Demand for Icelandic whales plummeted after Japan began commercial whaling in 2019. During the outbreak, whale meat processing plants were also unable to operate normally.
Conservationists are currently researching whaling tourism. Whale-watching companies have agreed to follow a code of conduct that includes not making loud noises, approaching animals slowly, and taking turns with other boats.
However, unlike other whale watching sites like New Zealand or Canada, there is no legal obligation to obey this voluntary rule. Ovid wants lawmakers to do something about it.
Scientists test cortisol levels and observe behavior to see if the whales are agitated by tourist ships. According to Tom Grove, co-founder of Whale Wise, research carried out in collaboration with the University of Edinburgh and the University of Iceland could lead to changes to the current code of conduct.
Some still oppose the proposal to abolish whaling. Owner of Hvalur, a family business that has spearheaded fin whale hunting for decades, Kristján Loftsson told the Guardian he intended to continue for as long as it was allowed.
For the first time in four years, it announced it would resume whaling for four months this summer, with up to 150 people expected to be employed to work on whalers.
In recent years, public support for whaling has declined. However, for the time being, whale killer ships continue to float alongside whale watching boats in Reykjavik harbour.
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