Whaling in Iceland

By Summer Moukalled

In July 2018, whalers in Iceland were accused of illegally killing a protected blue whale.[1] As it was later confirmed, the animal was confirmed to be a rare hybrid, which is not protected by Icelandic Law.[2] While on the surface it appears that the distinction makes no difference, determining the species of the whale is key in determining whether the killing was legal or not.[3]

Nearly every nation has prohibited the killing of whales.[4] During the 1930s and 40s, the whale population was rapidly declining as a result of whaling.[5]  Species after species of great whales were being hunted to near extinction, leading to various nations meeting to bring order to the industry.[6] Finally, in 1948, the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling (ICRW) was established.[7] As its preamble states, “Recognizing the interest of the nations of the world in safeguarding for future generations the great natural resources represented by the whale stocks . . . . having decided to conclude a convention to provide for the proper conservation of whale stocks and thus make possible the orderly development of the whaling industry”.[8] The International Whaling Commission was created to govern, and one representative from each of the fifteen original member states were to head the commission.[9] Today, the IWC is comprised of 89 members.[10]

In 1982, members of the IWC voted to implement a moratorium on commercial whaling.[11] Iceland was one of the few handfuls of countries that opposed the moratorium.[12] In 2002, Iceland filed a reservation to its treaty that would allow for commercial whaling despite the 1982 moratorium banning the practice.[13] Since the whaling commission doesn’t create binding law, it is completely legal.

While whale hunting was put on pause since the 1985 moratorium, in 2006, Iceland whalers announced that they would resume whaling of two different species of whales, the fin whale and the minke whale. [14]  Despite the fact that fin whales were on the International Conservation Union’s “red list” of endangered species, Iceland’s fisheries ministry claimed that there were more than 43,000 minke whales and 25,000 fin whales in its coastal waters.[15]

In 2016, Iceland’s only whaling company, Hvalur, paused its hunting of fine whales because of commercial difficulties in Japan, Iceland’s main exporter.[16] In 2018, Iceland resumed its commercial whaling activities.[17]

A question arises as to how Iceland can even hunt these animals when the IWC has prohibited the killing of whales. Given that the IWC doesn’t create binding law, it is unlikely that much will change unless international pressure for Iceland to stop whaling increases. In the past, the European Union and the United States have condemned Iceland’s whaling activities and urged it to recognize the IWC’s ban on commercial hunting.[18] The U.S. does have the ability to impose economic sanctions on Iceland for its actions, and Iceland’s continued efforts is especially surprising in light of the Pelly Amendment, which allows the U.S. Secretary of Commerce or the Secretary of the Interior to certify the president when foreign nationals are performing activities that diminish the effectiveness of an international fisheries convention, or engaging in trade that diminishes the effectiveness of an international program for endangered or threatened species.[19]  In 2014, the Department of the Interior certified under the Pelly Amendment that Iceland’s international trade in whale meat diminished the effectiveness of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES).[20]  In response, the Government of Iceland asserted that hunting quota’s are sustainable according to scientists, that its country is dependent upon the export of fisheries, and that it will not prohibit the export of whale products.[21] Pursuant to the Pelly Amendment, the U.S. can impose economic sanctions against traders of whales, however, President Obama elected not to impose trade sanctions.[22]  It is unclear whether Donald Trump will decide to impose sanctions on Iceland, however, given his administrations despite to rollback conservation efforts, it might be unlikely.[23]  

Despite the legality of hunting hybrid whales, Iceland will be prohibited from exporting the meat of this hybrid animal under international regulations governing animal trading.[24] However, Arne Feuerhahn, founder of Hard to Port, an organization that documents Icelandic whale hunts, has expressed skepticism as to whether  Iceland will actually prevent Hvalur from exporting the meat from this hybrid whale.[25] Feuerhahn says that if the Icelandic government and authorities are not following up on whether Hvalur is complying with the laws, it is possible that the meat from these hybrids are actually being exported illegally to Japan.[26]

Whale watching has become a huge source of tourism for the country, and the Icelandic Tourism Industry Association has recognized that whale-watching has become one of the most popular tourist activities within the country.[27] A survey of whale watchers in Iceland showed that 79% of tourists said they would boycott whale-watching to countries that actively engage in hunting cetaceans.[28] Further, while tourists are the largest domestic market for whale meat, 65% of whale-watch survey respondents stated that they would never try whale meat.[29] These results show that it is apparent that whale-watching and whale hunting are incompatible. Further, growing complaints about its practices have highlighted a lack of clear policy on the part of the government.

 The Minister for the Environment, Guðmundur Ingi Guðbrandsson has said that he doesn’t believe that Iceland's hunting of whales is sustainable, but has no jurisdiction over the Ministry of Fisheries. [30] The Minister of Fisheries and Agriculture stated in a questioned posed to him by the chairman of the moderate Reform Party, that he did not believe it would be right to abandon Iceland’s policy on whaling, that its built upon the sustainable use of Iceland’s whale population and that its whaling policy is based on scientific counsel.[31]

Due to increased opposition to whaling from other countries and conservation groups, and because of the increased popularity of whale watching, Iceland will have to make a decision as to whether to continue their whaling practices or to meet the rest of the world in complying with International Law.

[1] Tom Embury-Dennis, Iceland ‘slaughters blue whale’ for first time in 40 years, sparking anger among conservationists, Independent (July 12, 2018), https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/europe/blue-whale-slaughtered-iceland-40-years-conservationists-anger-images-a8444821.html

[2] Matt McGrath, Whale Killing: DNA shows Iceland whale was rare hybrid, BBC News (Jul. 20, 2018), https://www.bbc.com/news/science-environment-44809115

[3] Id.

[4] Mark Kaufman, Iceland gets away with killing dozens of huge, endangered whales. Here's why., Mashable (Jul. 17, 2018), https://mashable.com/article/iceland-whaling-blue-fin-whales/#rTqlBbsiHiqK

[5] See, A History of the International Whaling Convention, http://wwf.panda.org/knowledge_hub/endangered_species/cetaceans/cetaceans/iwc/history/ (last visited Sep. 2, 2018).

[6] Id.

[7] Id.

[8] 161 U.N.T.S. 72.  

[9] Id.

[10] See, A History of the International Whaling Convention, http://wwf.panda.org/knowledge_hub/endangered_species/cetaceans/cetaceans/iwc/history/ (last visited Sep. 2, 2018).

[11] Philip Shabecoff, Commission Votes to Ban Hunting of Whales, New York Times (Jul. 24, 1982), https://www.nytimes.com/1982/07/24/us/commission-votes-to-ban-hunting-of-whales.html.

[12] See, Iceland, International Whaling Convention, https://iwc.int/iceland (last visited Sep. 2, 2018).

[13] Id.

[14] Nicola Jones, Iceland resumes commercial whaling, Nature (Oct. 23, 2006), https://www.nature.com/news/2006/061023/full/news061023-3.html

[15] Fred Attewill, Iceland resumes commercial whaling, The Guardian (Oct. 23, 2006), https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2006/oct/23/whaling.conservation.

[16] Iceland resumes fin whale hunt after two-year pause, Phys Org (Apr. 17, 2018), https://phys.org/news/2018-04-iceland-company-resume-commercial-fin.html.

[17] Julia Jabour & Rachael Lorna Johnstone, Why Iceland is Set to Resume Whaling Despite International Opposition, The Conversation (May 14, 2018), http://theconversation.com/why-iceland-is-set-to-resume-whaling-despite-international-opposition-95642.

[18] EU, U.S. blast Iceland for stepping up whaling, Reuters (Sep. 15, 2014), https://www.reuters.com/article/us-iceland-whaling/eu-u-s-blast-iceland-for-stepping-up-whaling-idUSKBN0HA1Z020140915.

[19] Fisherman’s Protective Act, P.L. 92-219 (85 Stat. 786).

[20] U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, International Affairs, https://www.fws.gov/international/laws-treaties-agreements/us-conservation-laws/pelly-amendment.html.

[21] John F. Kerry, Sally Jewell and Penny Prtizker, Memorandum for the President, Actions Taken in Response to Pelly Certification of Iceland, (Jan. 23 2015), available at https://www.fws.gov/international/pdf/memo-response-to-pelly-certification-of-iceland.pdf.

[22] Animal Welfare Institute, US Imposes Diplomatic Sanctions for Icelandic Whaling, Falls Short of Trade Sactions, (Apr. 1, 2014), https://awionline.org/content/us-imposes-diplomatic-sanctions-icelandic-whaling-falls-short-trade-sanctions.

[23] See Drew Kann, The Trump Administration wants to roll back the Endangered Species Act. These 10 animals might not be here today without it, TDN.com (Jul. 26, 2018), https://tdn.com/news/national/govt-and-politics/the-trump-administration-wants-to-roll-back-the-endangered-species/collection_14c24b86-d88a-5010-abbf-b4bfe908b0d3.html#1.

[24] Alfredo Carpineti, Iceland Resumes Hunt for Endangered Fin Whales, IflScience!, (Jun, 22, 2018), https://www.iflscience.com/plants-and-animals/iceland-resumes-hunt-for-endangered-fin-whales/

[25] Elizabeth Claire Alberts, This Country Just Killed Yet Another Super Rare Whale, The Dodo (Aug. 31, 2018), https://www.thedodo.com/in-the-wild/second-rare-whale-hybrid-killed-iceland.

[26] Id.

[27] E.C.M. Parsons & C. Rawles, The Resumtpion of Whaling by Iceland and the Potential Negative Impact in the Icelandic Whale-watching Market, 6 Current Issues in Tourism 444, 445 (2003).

[28] Id.

[29] Chiara G. Bertulli, Ruth H. Leeney, Thomas Barreau, and Danilo Swann Matassa, can Whale-watching and whaling co-exist? Tourist perceptions in Iceland, 96 J. of the Marine Biological Ass’n of the U.K. 969, 971 (2014).

[30] Whale hunting company confirms that they have hunted 11 pregnant whales this summer, Iceland Monitor, (Aug. 21, 2018), https://icelandmonitor.mbl.is/news/politics_and_society/2018/08/21/whale_hunting_company_confirms_that_they_have_hunte/.  

[31] Svanhildur Sif Halldorsdottir, Whaling in iceland betrays a lack of governmental policy consensus, Guide to Iceland Now (Aug. 24, 2018), https://now.guidetoiceland.is/2018/08/24/news/whaling-in-iceland/.