Iceland announces new whaling quotas

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In February the World Cetacean Alliance (WCA) was shocked and saddened to hear reports that Iceland’s Fisheries and Agriculture Minister, Kristjan Thor Juliusson had announced that his countries whalers would be authorized to harpoon 209 fin whales and 217 minke whales annually until 2023. Despite being one of the most environmentally progressive nations in the world, Iceland is one of only a few countries left that continue to allow the outdated practice of hunting whales for commercial purposes.

Whaling operations in Iceland predominantly target two species, minke whale, and the IUCN (International Union for the Conservation of Nature) Red Listed fin whale. Minke whale meat is mostly marketed to tourist’s visiting Iceland as a ‘traditional’ Icelandic dish, whilst the majority of fin whale meat is shipped to Japan.

In 2018 the fin whaling company Hvalur, owned by Kristjan Loftsson, received global condemnation after shocking reports surfaced that the company had erroneously killed an endangered blue whale. After international calls for DNA testing of the whale, the Icelandic government claimed it was not a blue whale but rather a blue and fin whale hybrid.  Despite the governments assertions, doubt remains about the legitimacy of this claim amongst the international cetacean protection community.

Blue whales, like fin whales are also listed as Endangered on the IUCN Red List for Conservation Concern. While the International Whaling Commission placed a moratorium on hunting large whales for commercial purposes in 1986, Iceland filed a reservation to the treaty stating they would not agree to it. Killing of blue whales is illegal under international law, however Iceland’s Fisheries Ministry claims their quotas for minke and fin whale are sustainable, ‘only directed at abundant whale stocks’ and is ‘science-based, sustainable and strictly managed’. The killing of a blue/fin hybrid clearly calls these claims into question; it highlights the difficulties in identifying species at sea, the problems of a lack of independent monitoring and surveillance and raises concerns that a rare and protected individual could be slaughtered for no reason.

Blue/fin whale hybrids are protected under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) as both species are listed under Appendix I. CITES takes a precautionary approach to the management of hybrids listed in its appendices. A blue/fin hybrid is treated as both an Appendix 1 fin whale and an Appendix 1 blue whale. Iceland holds a reservation exempting it from the Appendix 1 listing of both blue and fin whales. However, it is the only party that does so. This means that while it can export products from a hybrid whale all other CITES members are barred from buying them. As such it is understood that Hvalur was unable to profit from this kill.

The international community had hoped that the Icelandic government, now in the global spotlight and facing immense pressure, would act to revoke the remaining commercial whaling licenses of Hvalur and IP fisheries, the company primarily responsible for minke whaling. Instead, it has disappointingly ignored worldwide criticism and allowed Hvalur’s and IP Fisheries operations to continue in 2018 – and now, for at least the next four years. The choice to allow commercial whaling taints the positive steps Iceland has made towards protection of the marine environment and whales. The expansion of the whale sanctuary in Faxafloi Bay, has drastically reduced the minke whale hunting grounds, investment in eco-tourism and sustainable, responsible whale watching has provided economic growth, and ironically Iceland has also supported the recent sea side sanctuary development, for the retirement of previously captive cetaceans.

Iceland’s whale watching Industry is already making great strides, and the WCA encourages the Icelandic government to consider investing further in sustainable and responsible cetacean based tourism.  Travel and eco-tourism provides benefit to entire communities, adding cultural, social and economic value as an alternative to the outdated and globally unacceptable practice of commercial whale hunting that only seems to benefit a few.


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