Picture by ATN (Elding Reykjavík ‘Whale watching tour’, April 2023)

Practised in Iceland since the early 1600s, whaling only turned into a large commercial scale hunt during the 19th century. After temporarily suspending whaling in its waters in June, Iceland’s government allowed it again on Thursday. Iceland remains one of only three countries (with Norway and Japan) in the world where whaling is permitted, a practice opposed for decades by animal rights groups and severely restricted worldwide due to the fact that several species are threatened with extinction. However, according to a recent poll, more than half of the Icelandic population would like to abolish whaling altogether, and the Icelandic ‘Ministry of Food, Agriculture and Fisheries’ is yet to decide whether or not to grant licences for 2024. Iceland resumed hunting fin whales in 2006, after a 20-year pause due to a moratorium imposed in 1986 by the ‘International Whaling Commission’, after some species came close to extinction. In Iceland, Norway and Japan it is permitted to hunt whales and sell their meat, but today the vast majority (98,5% in a 2016 poll) of the population actually no longer eats it: instead, it is often mainly a food offered to tourists attracted by the idea of eating something unusual.

Icelandic whalers processing a whale in the 16th century. Original text: AM345fol Institute of Árni Magnússon

In May, Iceland’s independent food and animal welfare authority published a report denouncing the particularly brutal methods used to kill whales in Iceland: the report said, for example, that only 67% of the whales monitored had died or lost consciousness immediately after being shot by hunters. In other words, one in three had died in great pain. The Icelandic government described the report’s findings as ‘worrying’ and suspended hunting until the end of August, then drew up and approved new extremely stringent regulations: fishermen will only be able to hunt whales that are within 25 metres of their boat; hunting will only be allowed during the day and only for people who have received special training in whale biology, pain perception and stress, and instructions of how to harpoon the animals to make sure that they die quickly. To date, Icelandic laws allow the annual killing of 209 fin whales and 217 minke whales, a smaller species. While some animal rights groups have opposed the government’s new decision, others argue that whaling is becoming less and less popular among Icelanders, especially the younger generations, and that the government is only trying to phase it in. Speaking to the Guardian and BBC News, NGO ‘International Fund for Animal Welfare’ officials guess that these steps will soon lead to a definitive ban of whaling in Iceland. Protests from the public are arising: on September 1st, the board of the ‘Association of Icelandic Film Producers’ (SÍK) expressed regret for the Minister of Food, Agriculture and Fisheries’ decision, and on September 5th two activists fastened themselves to the masts of two Hvalur hf whaling vessels.

On this subject, listen to the excellent episode ‘Sea change‘ from ‘Deep North: stories from Iceland‘ podcast.

Read more on BBC.com, Ilpost.it, MBL.is, Reuters.com, Sentientmedia.orgTheGuardian.com