Whaling in Iceland: Current Status

In the past, whaling in Iceland was a source of food and raw materials. What is the state of this industry nowadays?

Whales swimming in the cold waters of Iceland

blog authorBy Samuel Hogarth shield verificationVerified Expert

    When settlers first arrived in Iceland in the 9th century, they found less than optimal conditions for agriculture. They also found no land mammals, and so brought livestock with them from Scandinavia for food. The settlers made the most of Iceland’s surrounding waters, which contain an abundance of sea life. And so, fishing became an integral part of the country’s culture; today, fish are the country’s main export. Another animal that has been consumed here for centuries, and continues to be, is the whale. Let’s take a look at the history, and current status, of whaling in Iceland.

    What is Whaling?

    Whaling is the hunting of whales for the purpose of harvesting their body parts. It has existed as a practice for thousands of years and grew to become an organized industry. One whale could provide huge amounts of meat and other resources, such as bones for tools and oil for burning. Other uses include cosmetics, pharmaceuticals, bones for carving sculptures, and pet food. When it was realized how profitable the practice could be, it became extremely widespread. This resulted in the near extinction of many whale species until regulations were put in place to limit the industry. Although these regulations are decided by a global Commission, each country has jurisdiction of its own waters. Therefore, each country can decide how it wants to practice whaling, if at all.

    Is Whale Hunting Still Permitted in Iceland?

    In 1946, the International Whaling Commission was set up to govern the industry. They act under the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling, an agreement to ensure the conservation of whale stocks. Under this commission, commercial whaling has technically been banned since 1986. Nevertheless, Iceland, Norway, and Japan continue to allow commercial whaling in their waters. Norway does so under their ‘objection’ to the ban, and Japan uses ‘scientific permits’ as a loophole.

    Under the premise of research, whales are killed in Japan’s waters and the meat is consumed domestically. In previous decades, Iceland too used scientific research as a justification to hunt whales. However, since 2006 they have resumed commercial whaling and the meat is either consumed here or sold to Japan. As a result, 1,500 large whales and over 100,000 dolphins and other small whale species are killed globally every year.

    Harpoon used for whale hunting

    The most infamous example of whale hunting is from Taiji, Japan. Mass dolphin slaughter takes place in this area on a yearly basis, wherein hundreds of dolphins are killed or captured. It is important to note that the IWC’s ‘moratorium’ (ban) is not policed. Countries are free to ignore it without repercussions, except charities and animal rights groups. Greenpeace and Sea Shepherd, among others, have regularly protested against Iceland’s whaling industry. 

    There is also a large movement within Iceland to end whaling. This is led by the International Fund for Animal Welfare and the organization ‘Hard to Port’. Some whaling advocates have made the argument that whaling is necessary to remove fishing competition. However, most whales do not eat any commercially valuable fish species. Note that ‘aboriginal whaling’ is not included under the moratorium, whereby it’s acknowledged that indigenous populations rely on whale meat. This includes countries such as Canada, Greenland, and Indonesia.

    Iceland Whale Hunting

    Spear-drift whaling has taken place around Iceland for hundreds of years. From an open boat, the whale was struck with a marked spear, and the beached carcass would later be recovered. Prior to Iceland’s independence, whaling in its waters was dominated by foreign powers, such as the United States and Norway. Today, Iceland’s waters are solely under its control, and no foreign fishing or whaling is permitted. The modern method to kill whales is to use harpoons fired from the whaling vessel. The harpoons generally contain an explosive which will detonate after they have penetrated the whale, theoretically causing a quick death. However, this is not always the case, and sometimes a hunted whale will die slowly by bleeding to death.

    Two whaling companies are currently in operation in Iceland. One of them mostly hunts fin whales to sell to Japan and the other minke whales for sale in Iceland. Whale meat taken from around Iceland is a popular food for tourists, most of whom will never have tried it. In fact, polls have shown that most modern Icelanders have never tried whale meat themselves. Nonetheless, there is still a small demand for the product in the country. However, the country’s two whaling companies have not hunted any whales in the last two years. 

    Whale meat served on a plate raw

    Due to whaling and climate change, the global whale population has significantly declined in the last century. Most large whale species are heavily endangered today, with some breeds numbering only in the hundreds. However, statistics indicate that most species’ populations are recovering, as whaling decreases in popularity. Whale meat consumption continues to decline globally, and the focus in Iceland has largely shifted to whale watching.

    Iceland’s Whale Watching

    Of course, the whale watching industry and the whaling industry come into conflict. As a result, sanctuaries have been set up in certain areas around Iceland where whaling is not permitted. This gives the boat companies who offer whale watching tours the guarantee that they will not clash with hunters. Whale watching continues to grow every year as an activity in the country. Companies have sprung up on every coastline to cater to the large numbers of tourists who want to see whales. Many species of whale frequent Iceland’s waters, to take advantage of its huge fish population. This includes minkes, humpbacks, orcas, and blue whales, who migrate hundreds of miles every year past the country’s coastlines. In all, 23 different species of whale (Icelandic ‘hvalur’) have been spotted here.

    The best time for whale watching in Iceland is between April and October, however, in some places they appear year-round. Húsavík, a small town in the north, is regarded as the whale watching capital of Iceland. Some companies based there report an almost 100% success rate in previous summers of dolphin or whale sightings. Akureyri, another town in the north, is also renowned for its whale watching. That being said, whale watching tours depart daily from the capital, Reykjavík, and there are plenty of whales around here.

    whale watching tour in Iceland for tourists

    It seems to be the case that whaling will soon completely disappear from Iceland. This is due to the money that whale watching tourism brings and the local lack of demand for whale meat. Additionally, people everywhere are shifting their perspective to the idea that these majestic animals should be observed, not eaten.Whale hunting has certainly been an important practice for some countries in the past. It continues to be important for some communities today, not to profit from, but to survive on. However, with the increased focus on conservation and eco-tourism, whaling continues to decline as a practice. These animals are recognized as being a crucial part of Earth’s ocean ecosystems, whose loss would be heavily felt. It may be that one day, whaling will not happen at all. Regarding whether it continues in Iceland, well, that’s up to you, reader. If you don’t buy whale meat when you visit here, the demand will continue to decrease.

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