In what looks to be a momentous decision for the survival of large whales, Iceland’s fisheries minister Svandís Svavarsdóttir has decided to postpone the start of the nation's annual whaling season from late June until 31 August, to allow time for experts to investigate whether the harpooning of fin whales can ever comply with animal welfare legislation.
In practice the move is likely to mean that the annual slaughter will not happen at all this year, if ever again. The whaling season ends at the start of September, and the licence of Iceland’s only whaling company, Hvalur, expires this year, with no new licences having been issued beyond that time. Hvalur’s one rival company closed three years ago after running into financial difficulties.
Hvalur had been hoping to harpoon up to 200 fin whales this season, even more than the 148 it killed in 2022. Fin whales (Balaenoptera physalus) are rated as Vulnerable to extinction on the IUCN Red List, and it is only Iceland, along with Japan and Norway, that has continued the commercial hunting of whales, in defiance of the International Whaling Commission’s 1986 global moratorium.
Hunt was unlawful
In May an inspection report on whale welfare concluded that Hvalur’s methods of killing whales was too protracted to comply with legislation. The Icelandic Food & Veterinary Authority (MAST) commissioned an expert council, which on 19 June pronounced last year’s hunt to have been unlawful.
It found that 41% of whales targeted had not been killed outright, and could take up to two hours to die. “The conditions of the law on animal welfare are inescapable in my mind,” said Svavarsdóttir in her rapid response to the report. “If the government and licence-holders cannot guarantee welfare requirements, this activity does not have a future.”
Her ministry will now examine any proposals for possible improvements in hunting methods as well as the legal conditions for imposing further restrictions on hunting based on the Animal Welfare Act and the Whaling Act, and seek feedback.
According to a recent independent survey, only 29% of Icelanders still favoured whale hunts. Most of these tended to be aged 60 and above, suggesting that enthusiasm for the practice was dying out with older generations.
Stress and fear
“Aside from the issues with the killing methods, the MAST report’s expert panel also concluded that it is not possible to determine the sex of a whale from the ship or whether they are about to kill a pregnant female or a lactating mother with a calf,” commented UK charity Whale & Dolphin Conservation (WDC).
“The chances of surviving for motherless whale calves are negligible. Hunting is also not possible without following the whales for some time before shooting, which causes stress and fear, and killing them is not possible in a quick and painless manner.”
WDC and and partner organisation Hard To Port had alerted Icelandic officials to violations of animal welfare laws in the fin whale hunt, providing evidence that harpoon explosive charges often failed to detonate, subjecting the whales to “an agonising ordeal”.
“This led to the government ordering mandatory monitoring on whaling vessels by vets,” said WDC, with the resulting report including “appalling video footage exposing the enormous cruelty of the hunts, with some whales suffering for up to two hours after being shot with a harpoon”.
The minister’s decision to suspend whaling in Iceland “could now finally bring an end to the slaughter there – moreover this decision could also pave the way to the cessation of whaling in Norway and Japan,” commented WDC campaigner Luke McMillan.
Anti-whaling campaign group Sea Shepherd was also optimistic following the decision. “After months of protest, Iceland's minister of fisheries & agriculture has announced her decision to stop Iceland’s hunt for fin whales this summer!” it stated. “Hvalur is the last remaining whaling company in Iceland. Looks like their days are finally numbered!“