Reykjavik, Iceland – Ready to try grilled minke whale skewers, the “Moby Dick on a Stick”, as the dish is advertised by The Seabaron restaurant, a British tourist observes, “looks like a Turkish kebab.” Taking a bite, he adds, “Tastes indeed like red meat and poor ethics.”
Tourism is booming in Iceland . A record 1.8 million people visited the remote North Atlantic island last year, a 40 percent increase from the year before. The number of American visitors alone – almost 415,000 – outnumbered Iceland ‘s native population of 320,000, and even exceeded the total annual number of tourists in 2006.
The flock of foreign visitors made Iceland the fastest- growing developed country in 2016 in terms of gross domestic product.
In Reykjavik, Iceland’s capital, tower cranes rise from the skyline, ever more global fast-food chains are opening down the capital’s main shopping street Laugavegur, and the low-cost carrier WOW Air plans to build an enormous new headquarters.
Less visible is the success of Iceland’s only operating whale-hunting company. Having been declared bankrupt in 2012 and 2013, IP-Utgerd Ltd (previously Hrefnuveidimenn Ltd and Hrafnreydur Ltd) is now having a much smoother sail.
The company hunted 46 minke whales this past season, the largest number in years, to serve a growing demand from restaurants serving the meat to tourists. The catch is now split 60/40 between restaurants and grocery stores.
Five years ago, the market share was the other way around and prices lower, according to the company manager, Gunnar Jonsson.
‘Meet us, don’t eat us’
A wide banner attached to a tiny wooden hut across the street from The Seabaron summarises this trend with the most straightforward phrase: “Whales are Being Killed to Feed Tourists”.
“The banner prompts spontaneous visits, usually out of surprise,” says Maria Gunnarsdottir, the manager of IceWhale, an anti-whaling organisation based out the wooden hut by Reykjavik’s Old Harbour.
“Most tourists seem unaware that Iceland has a whaling industry until they, perhaps, notice minke whale as a ‘traditional dish’ on a restaurant menu and get intrigued.”
IceWhale, funded by whale-watching and tour operators – promotes the campaign ” Meet Us, don’t eat us”, that urges tourists to boycott pro-whaling restaurants and, instead, enjoy the animals in their natural habitat.
Roughly a fifth of all tourists in Iceland go whale watching. Maskina, a market researcher, ranks the pastime the fourth most-purchased tourist activity, number one being admission to geothermal baths.
In Reykjavik, these two industries – whale-hunting and whale-watching – both operate in Faxa Bay. The whaling boats, however, are only allowed to work roughly 20-kilometre away from the tour operators.
Gunnarsdottir wants them much further away – and out of business entirely.
When Iceland resumed commercial whaling in 2006, whale-watching guides in Faxa Bay reported spotting the minke whale much more often than their larger rorqual relative, the humpback whale. But now, a decade later, the humpback is spotted more frequently.
While the population of minke whales in costal Icelandic waters remains stable at around 20,000 animals, changes in the ocean’s food web have pushed their whereabouts much further north. According to scientists, the most obvious explanation for this disruption is climate change; along south and west Iceland, ocean temperatures have risen 1 to 2 degrees Celcius since 1996.
But Gunnarsdottir says the hunting of whales has had its own effect . “Minke whales are elegant swimmers and generally difficult to observe due to their fast speed,” she explains, “but in the past we had individual whales that were by nature curious towards boats – our star performers. Sadly, they’ve also been the easiest prey, it seems.”
In the belly of a tourist
Commercial whaling would be unsustainable as a business without the tourist demand, conservationists argue, pointing to a 2016 Gallup poll in which 81 percent of Icelanders said they had not bought whale meat in the past 12 months. Only 1.5 percent said they had bought the meat “six times or more often”, while 9 percent had done so between two and five times over the past year.
Meanwhile, 12 percent of tourists ate whale meat during their stay in Iceland this past summer, according to another survey by the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW), an animal welfare and conservation charity .
From 2012 to 2015, a steady 18-20 percent of respondents, all tourists, said they had eaten whale meat. The current change is still a gain in frequencies since the tourist population was only 640,000 in 2012 , about 1.2 million fewer than last year. This year, 2.4 million tourists are forecast to visit Iceland; 12 percent would equal 288,000 people – nearly matching the population of Icelanders.
Another factor is the origin of these tourists. Tourists from China are more likely than others to try whale meat during their stay. They are also one of the fastest-growing group of visitors to Iceland.
Among Icelandic baby boomers, who grew up during the golden age of catching minke whales, the meat was long perceived as a cheap alternative to red meat.
Today, minke whale meat is about $16.70 a kilo in grocer’s – more expensive than boneless chicken breasts.
Sigursteinn Masson, who is leading IFAW’s anti-whaling efforts in Iceland, believes the message is getting across to tourists.
“People want to travel responsibly,” he says. “We usually don’t have to do much convincing after sharing the facts – that the meat is neither common nor traditional in Iceland.”
He also points out that Iceland used to hunt the fin whale, the world’s second largest whale, purely for export to Japan, Iceland’s only ally in commercial whaling along with neighbouring Norway.
The company Hvalur hf (Whale Ink) has not hunted fin whale since 2015, blaming red tape in Japanese import standards for fresh meat.
“If we knew what kind of trouble was brewing in Japan when we commenced whaling in 2009, after a 20-year pause, we would have never started again,” Kristjan Loftsson, the owner of Whale Ink, told local media.
The company still holds a government quota for 146 fin whales annually and could, technically, resume whaling this year.
The whalers could hunt more
Minke whales and fin whales were only first hunted in the early 20th century. As they are fast swimmers, hunting these species requires modern vessels and harpoons tagged with explosives, as scientist Gisli Vikingsson explains.
Vikingsson heads whale research at Marine and Freshwater Research Institute, responsible for setting the quota for whaling in the Mid-North Atlantic region surrounding Iceland. The quota in Iceland for minke whales has been 224 in the most recent years – four-to-six times higher than the actual number of catches over the years.
“The whaling is not endangering the species – that’s agreed by everyone,” Vikingsson says, further stating that Iceland’s sustainable quotas are approved by the scientific body of the International Whaling Commission (IWC). “Iceland and the IWC fundamentally disagree on politics, not methods.”
“To allow whaling is, however, always based on political policies, and that’s where Iceland and the IWC fundamentally disagree – on the politics of hunting whales, not the scientific methods used to regulate it.”
Why do the Icelanders not eat more whale?
The IWC voted for a total ban on commercial whaling in 1986, and for two decades, Iceland obliged.
“A whole generation grew up without the meat,” says Gunnar Jonsson, manager of the whaling company, IP-Utgerd. “I am sure we could boost sales with more marketing, like teaching people how best to cook a Minke whale steak.”
The current marketing strategy is to promote it as organic and healthy. Seeking photographs, Al Jazeera visited four shops until finally finding eight frozen packages in Bonus, a discount store, with a label claiming the meat as “one of the healthiest red meats available”, based on being lean, high in protein and with low mercury levels.
Demand has largely exceeded supply – equivalent to 15-20 whales – over the past years, Jonsson says. The company has had to repeatedly import extra meat from Norway to prevent the cuisine from being dropped from restaurant menus.
“Just like smoked puffin, this is something restaurants are excited to offer tourists,” he says. “Today, we serve more places than ever and our long-standing clients have stood their ground towards the occasional criticism.”
Jonsson, a pilot and business lawyer by trade, has led the whaling industry for the past 10 years – sometimes under much fire from the outside world.
In 2014, the United States government issued a statement outlining a number of actions the US planned against Iceland owing to whaling .
While US efforts have focused more on the hunting of fin whales, the heat is still on Jonsson. Another online petition, signed by more than 20,000 people, is directed at him personally: “Tell Gunnar Jonsson to stop killing whales and start a whale watching company instead,” the petition’s text reads.
Speaking to Al Jazeera, he appeared oblivious to criticism, perhaps because Icelanders are on his side; a 2016 Gallup poll showed a 51 percent supported for Minke whaling. Only 20 percent were against and the rest undecided.
“For Icelanders, a fishing nation, a sustainable use of the ocean is our greatest environmental contribution,” he says.
“It would make no sense to let the whale population grow out of balance with everything else in the sea.”