Icelanders – especially vegans and vegetarians – are beginning to protest.
Saturday morning, 07:43. I look at my Facebook page and see a message from activist Arne Feurerhafn from the German Hard to Port group. One of the whaling boats, Hvalur 8, has been sighted on its way back to the whaling station in rural Hvalfjordur (Whale Fjord) and would probably reach there an hour or so later.
I know the environs well, as I also demonstrated there five years ago when a whale was brought back. That time, I got there before the boat so watched as the whale came in and began to be cut up.
That day, there had been enough prior warning to ensure a decent turnout on the grassy bank overlooking the whaling station. This time, there wasn’t – because the man behind Iceland’s fin whaling, Kristjan Loftsson, had turned off the Automatic Identification System (AIS) that enables ships to be tracked using apps such as Marine Traffic, precisely to make life difficult for protestors.
Prodded and cut
“You don’t invite these people to visit, I don’t do that,” he told a reporter for one of the Icelandic newspapers, Morgunbladid. “The less they know about us, the better,” he added.
But in this case we knew.
Armed with a camera and various other essentials, I headed off in my trusty Suzuki Swift for the 50-minute drive to the whaling station. A few activists were already there, including Feurerhahn and Birkir Steinn Erlingsson, chair of the Iceland Vegan Society, along with a number of tourists.
The whaling boat had also got there before me, and the animal was no longer in one piece. It was gruesome – and got worse as time went on.
We watched the proceedings for an hour or so, as the whale got prodded and cut into smaller and smaller bits, washed down with gallons of water. I watched them dragging whale parts from one place to another.
Every so often I thought, “I must take a video of this.” But by the time I’d set up my camera, the bits I wanted to film had finished.
That was written a month ago now, June 23. A great deal has happened since then: 46 fin whales have been caught as of July 22 and Loftsson’s antics became known worldwide when a different whale was hauled onto land on the morning of July 7.
It was Hard to Port who alerted Facebook and the media with pictures of the mystery whale, under the headline, “Have Icelandic whalers just killed a rare hybrid whale?”.
Some overseas specialists thought it was a blue whale, after scrutinising photos. Partly due to this, the Marine and Freshwater Research Institute (MFRI) arranged for genetic testing to be carried out as quickly as possible rather than at the end of the season, as is the norm. It turned out to be a hybrid, with a blue whale mother and fin whale father.
At the time the news about the mystery whale was at its peak, Iceland’s Left-Green Prime Minister, Katrin Jakobsdottir, was in Brussels for a NATO meeting.
She was naturally bombarded by the press and asked for her opinion about whaling in general. Her party is anti-whaling, but the other parties that make up Iceland’s ruling coalition, the Independent Party and the Progressive Party, are pro-whaling.
Indeed, it was the outgoing fisheries minister from the Independent Party, Einar K. Gudfinnsson, who gave the go-ahead for five years of fin whaling in January 2009.
Five years later, permission was granted again for the following five years by Progressive Party fisheries minister Sigurdur Ingi Johannsson. So it is up to the Icelandic government rather than Loftsson to make a decision on whether or not to carry on with it next year.
Jakobsdottir told the press that she has asked for an investigation into the social, economic and environmental implications of fin whaling by Iceland. This will begin at the end of the current season, and a decision on whether to continue whaling next year will be based on the outcome of the investigation.
The fin whale quota for this year is 161 whales but 20 percent of unused quota from the previous year is added on to the current quota, meaning that in theory, 190 whales may conceivably be killed this season, though it is unlikely that this figure will be reached.
Morgunbladid – the only media that Loftsson will talk to – reported that Loftsson had used 2016-7, when whales were not hunted, to work with Innovation Centre Iceland on making iron supplements from the meat for the 30 percent of women, particularly those in developing countries, who suffer from anaemia.
But international trade on whale meat is banned under CITES so it is difficult to see who he hopes will buy the food supplements.
Ostensibly, the University of Iceland are also trying to make gelatine out of whale bones and blubber. Although neither the ICI nor the University of Iceland have refuted these assertations, nothing has been heard since, so some activists are doubtful about his claims. It seems that most of the meat will be going to Japan.
Icelanders – especially vegans and vegetarians – are beginning to protest. A group of about 40-50 people gathered in front of Hvalur 8 on June 10, the day Loftsson had said they would head off to sea.
The event, which was publicised on social media with only a few days’ notice, attracted considerable media attention as well as comments from tourists about to board whale-watching boats that are berthed a few metres away from the whaling boats.
Safe in the future
Another demonstration occurred on July 1, outside the Althingi building where the parliament meets.
Film crews from San Francisco, Poland and Germany filmed parts of the event, along with one Icelandic TV station, and many tourists stopped to talk. The next demonstration is planned for July 28, again outside the Althingi building.
Minke whales were also being hunted this summer. Although they got a quota of 217 for 2018, last year they only caught 17 and this year they have caught 6.
Gunnar Bergmann Jonsson, the man behind the minke whale hunts, has complained in the media about the difficulty in whaling as a large part of their main whaling grounds has been turned into a whale sanctuary and they have to go further afield.
When I noted that they obviously have not caught any whales in the last few weeks, Jonsson replied: “No, we’ve stopped.” So at least minke whales will be safe in the future.
Lowana Veal is a freelance journalist living in Reykjavik, Iceland.