Update 8/31/23: Today, Iceland’s Food, Agriculture and Fisheries minister announced the devastating decision that the country will allow commercial whaling to resume with new "improvements" to the methods and continued monitoring. However, there are no “improvements” that could ever make whaling humane.
In June, we celebrated Iceland’s decision to suspend its 2023 whale hunt. Iceland’s own Food and Veterinary Authority published a report on the fin whale hunt concluding that the time it took to kill the animals exceeded the maximum time permissible under the Icelandic Animal Welfare Act. Footage documented by the Authority showed whales struggling for hours and suffering painful deaths. In response to the Authority’s findings and public outcry, the Icelandic Minister of Food, Agriculture and Fisheries suspended all whaling operations in Iceland until the end of August while a review is conducted to determine whether whaling operations can be carried out in compliance with the law.
This was a massive step forward—but more needs to be done to ensure that this brutal hunt never happens again.
Whale hunts are extremely cruel; the animals are often shot with harpoons but swim away only to suffer prolonged, excruciating deaths. Footage recently published in the media shows a fin whale taking two agonizing hours to die as fishermen repeatedly blast the animal with harpoons.
Over the past 15 years, Iceland has killed 1,000 fin whales—a species listed as “vulnerable” on the International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s Red List of Threated Species, meaning these whales face a high risk of extinction in the wild. Iceland is just one of three countries that still hunt whales for commercial purposes after the global whaling moratorium was established by the International Whaling Commission in 1986—the others are Norway and Japan.
Economic factors have certainly played a significant role in the demise of Iceland’s whaling industry. With little demand for whale meat at home, Iceland has exported more than 10,000 tons of fin whale meat to Japan since 2006, even amid sluggish sales there. Iceland also hunts minke whales, smaller cousins of fin whales, whose meat is mostly served up in restaurants to tourists as a novelty. According to a Gallup poll in 2018, 84% of Icelanders said they had never eaten whale meat and only 2% said they had eaten it six times or more a year. A June 2023 poll conducted by the Maskina Institute showed that Icelandic public approval of whaling has hit an all-time low, with 51% of respondents opposing the practice.
But economic factors aside, it is the overriding moral argument against whaling that has sealed its fate. Harpooning these magnificent giants not only causes unjustifiable suffering to those whales who are killed, but also unimaginable distress to nearby whales who witness the chase and slaughter. There is no way to humanely kill a whale at sea due to the nature of the hunt and the methods used—firing harpoons at animals that are almost entirely submerged in water and can move quite quickly, especially when fleeing in fear.
Whales are worth far more alive than dead: Great whales such as fin and minke whales are like marine ecosystem engineers, feeding on tiny krill and plankton and adding crucial nutrients to the oceans with their waste. Protecting whales is key for the effort to combat climate change because they store a vast amount of carbon in their massive bodies over the course of their long lives. Each whale can sequester up to 33 tons of carbon, taking it out of the atmosphere for hundreds of years.
It is clearly time for Iceland to join the global community in condemning whaling, withdraw its “reservation” to the global moratorium on commercial whaling established by the International Whaling Commission in 1986, and ban whaling operations for good.
Follow Kitty Block on Twitter @HSUSKittyBlock.