Harpoon: Some Real Facts About Whaling in Iceland, Plus an Opinion or Two

The harpoon on Hvalur 9 at dock in Hvalfjörður, with retired whaling ships in the background

It's been a while since I posted last, and in that time I've been considering what to write to accompany this photo of a whaling harpoon, taken aboard Hvalur 9, a beautiful ship owned by Kristján Loftsson and the company his father started back in 1948, Hvalur hf. If you've been here and seen the four whaling ships that are usually docked at the Reykjavik harbor, (or seen this post from 2005) just imagine something a big larger but in the same style. "Hvalur" means whale in Icelandic, and Hvalur 9 and its crew hunt one of the most populous local species of cetacean, and the second largest in the world, the fin (Balaenoptera physalous.) 


Right now, about 85% of you readers are feeling righteous indignation at the idea of whaling. I can't stop you from feeling that, or for being overall offended that I might seem to be, if not hot for the idea of whaling, at least not so opposed to it either.

All I can say is this: I was commissioned to coordinate and interpret for a Japanese tv crew from TBS who were doing a piece on whaling in Iceland, giving me the opportunity to hear, and question and speak with, people from all sides of the issue here in Iceland, including the fisheries ministry with all its data and facts based on scientific sustainability research, whale-watching businesses owned in part by American NGO's (and unfortunately not 100% accurate with some of the facts they give at the end of their whale watching tours) and men who have been whaling for 50 or 60 years. I discovered that so much minke whale meat is eaten by tourists here in restaurants that it was sold out (even in stores) in late August, and that the sustainable hunting quotas placed by the government are never filled year after year (so much is based on weather.)

I also learned that stocks seem to be moving north of Iceland, possibly based on heavily intrusive, locust-like mackerel which are now found off our coasts, and which eat everything in sight, or maybe due to ocean temperatures. I learned that the quota for minke whale hunting is about 0.06% of the local stock around our Faxaflói (Faxa Bay) waters, and about 0.005% of the fin whale stock between Greenland and Iceland, with any hunting absolutely banned beyond that narrow strip of briny deep. And that, in the case of fin whales, the entire animal is used for human-consumption foodstuff, including the fat layers which are made into a "fat bacon" in Japan, with the remainder ground up for meal, I ate both minke and fin with the Japanese tv crew at a nice restaurant in my neighborhood, and found both to be absolutely delicious.

Ultimately, I learned that there is a kind of hysteria regarding whaling, where the animals are anthropomorphized into being something akin to sacred souls. In India cows are considered to be sacred souls, yet are subject to the most horrible factory farming techniques here in the west. I have cats that have personalities, yet cats are eaten in some parts of the world, and in others guinea pigs are roasted over spits and eaten on a stick, like a corn dog (and what's in a corn dog?) Yes, we screwed up in our advances into the industrial era by over-killing so many things and we need to right our wrongs, but I am absolutely more offended by an elephant's face being sliced off for precious ivory or, yes, by factory farming, than I am with the whale hunting done in our local seas.

(Two years on, I discovered an article by senior policy advisor to the World Wildlife Fund, Leigh Henry entitled "World Must Tackle the Biggest Killer of Whales - and It's Not Whaling" which adds a layer to the debate:

"It is scarcely believable but accidental entanglement in fishing gear – or bycatch – kills over 300,000 whales, dolphins and porpoises (collectively known as cetaceans) every year. And that’s a conservative estimate based on data from 2008. No one knows the real figure but it far outstrips the less than 2,000 whales that are deliberately hunted and killed for commercial purposes each year."

I knew about this issue, and about whale death by ship strike, back when I wrote this piece, but chose to stick to the more specific topic of the annual quota set, and never met, in local seas.)  

On board Hvalur 9 docked in Hvalfjörður, with owner Kristján Loftsson and members of the TBS reporting crew