Iceland suspends whale hunting over animal rights concerns

Rights groups advocate an end to the slaughter and say the mammals are also under serious threat from climate change.

A ship off the coast of Reykjavik is seen transporting a 20-metre long fin whale off its hull
The ship Hvalur 9 on June 24, 2022, transports a 20-metre-long fin whale off its hull to the processing plant in Hvalfjordur, near Reykjavik, Iceland, the first to be caught in nearly four years [File: Halldor Kolbeins/AFP]

Iceland’s government said it was suspending this year’s whale hunt until August 31 due to animal welfare concerns, likely bringing the controversial practice to a historic end.

A recent monitoring report by the country’s Food and Veterinary Authority on the fin whale hunt found that the killing of the animals took too long based on the main objectives of the Animal Welfare Act.

The veterinary authority broadcast shocking video clips that showed a whale’s agony as it was hunted for five hours.

“If the government and licensees cannot guarantee welfare requirements, these activities do not have a future,” said Svandis Svavarsdottir, the minister of food, agriculture and fisheries, in a statement on Tuesday, as she announced the suspension of “all whaling operations”.

Animal rights groups and environmentalists hailed the decision, with the Humane Society International calling it “a major milestone in compassionate whale conservation”.

Svavarsdottir said she would seek the opinions of experts and whale-hunting licence holders to explore further limitations on whaling in the future, the government said.

Iceland has only one remaining whaling company, Hvalur, and its licence to hunt fin whales expires in 2023.

Another company hung up its harpoons for good in 2020, saying it was no longer profitable.

Iceland’s whaling season runs from mid-June to mid-September, and it is doubtful Hvalur would head out to sea that late in the season.

The hunting of fin whales, which can reach lengths of more than 20 metres (65.6 feet), was resumed in Iceland in 2006 following a 1986 moratorium. Annual quotas authorise the killing of 209 fin whales – the second-longest marine mammal after the blue whale – and 217 minke whales, one of the smallest species.

But catches have gone down drastically in recent years because of a dwindling market for whale meat.

Whales also threatened by pollution, climate change     

Iceland, Norway and Japan are the only countries that have continued whale hunting in the face of fierce criticism from environmentalists and animal rights defenders.

“There is no humane way to kill a whale at sea, and so we urge the minister to make this a permanent ban,” the Humane Society International’s director Ruud Tombrock said in a statement.

“Whales already face so many serious threats in the oceans from pollution, climate change, entanglement in fish nets and ship strikes, that ending cruel commercial whaling is the only ethical conclusion.”

Robert Read, the head of Sea Shepherd UK, said the decision was also “a huge blow” to other whaling nations.

“If whaling can’t be done humanely here … it can’t be done humanely anywhere.”

Opposition to whaling has been on the rise in Iceland with a majority now in favour of abolishing the practice.

A survey published in early June indicated that 51 percent of Icelanders were opposed to the hunt and 29 percent were in favour, with over-60s those most in favour.

Iceland has depended heavily on fishing and whaling for centuries.

In the past two decades its tourism industry, including whale watching tours, has thrived – and these two key sectors of the economy have diverging interests.

Japan, by far the biggest market for whale meat, resumed commercial whaling in 2019 after a three-decade hiatus, drastically reducing the need for imports from Iceland.

Source: News Agencies