“Blood feud” began when Sea Shepherds sank two of his ships in 1986
REYKJAVIK, Iceland––Hvalur, the Icelandic whaling firm operated at huge annual losses by Kristján Loftsson, the “Captain Ahab” of the North Atlantic, intends to kill 191 fin whales in 2018, the company announced on April 18, 2018.
On April 19, 2018, Loftsson sold 34% of his shares in the HB Grandi commercial fishing empire for $217.5 million, apparently to help finance his whaling exploits.
Fin whales, on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s “red list” as a globally endangered species, are the second largest of the baleen whales, colloquially known as the “great whales.” Only blue whales are bigger.
Hunts only fin whales
Fin whales are not hunted by Norwegian whalers, and have seldom been killed by the Japanese “research whaling” fleet.
But Loftsson, 75, has long made a point of hunting only fin whales, arguing that the IUCN and International Whaling Commission population estimates are seriously low.
Loftsson contends that there are about 40,000 fin whales in the North Atlantic ocean, up from 25,000 in 2006 when the Icelandic government reauthorized whaling, after a 20-year hiatus. The Hvalur company has killed 706 fin whales since then, and now plans to accelerate the pace.
The Japanese and Norwegian whaling industries likewise kill whales in defiance of the global moratorium on commercial whaling introduced in 1986 by the International Whaling Commission. Bolstered by government subsidies, amounting to half or more of the cost of killing each whale, the Japanese and Norwegian whalers appear to hunt as much to thumb their noses at world opinion as to make money.
But nose-thumbing in the name of maintaining national pride in a failing traditional industry is only part of what appears to most motivate Loftsson, whose father founded Hvalur in 1947. The company name means “whaler” in Icelandic.
Loftsson first sailed with his father as a 13-year-old whale spotter in 1956. Loyalty to his father’s memory may be part of Loftsson’s motivation.
Quest for vengeance
But as with Captain Ahab, Loftsson appears to be driven chiefly by a quest for personal vengeance.
Instead of losing a leg to Moby Dick, a giant white sperm whale, Loftsson in November 1986 had his whale processing plant in Hvalfjörður fjord vandalized and two of his whaling ships scuttled in Reykjavík harbor, by anti-whaling activists Rod Coronado and David Howitt, in an operation sponsored by the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society.
The Hvalur 6 and Hvalur 7 were both refloated, but were never repaired and returned to service. Loftsson now kills whales with the Hvalur 8 and Hvalur 9, of similar appearance but newer construction.
Coronado and Howitt escaped from Iceland before the damage was discovered. The statute of limitations for prosecuting them expired more than 20 years ago.
Ignores lesson of Njal’s Saga
But Loftsson has yet to satisfy the grudge he holds over the episode, generalized to all who applauded the Sea Shepherd action, and for that matter, to everyone who opposes whaling.
Ironically, as a self-appointed defender of the Icelandic Viking heritage, Loftsson flouts the central lesson of Njal’s Saga, the 13th century foundation of Icelandic literature, which recounts a blood feud that raged from 960 to 1020 and warns against pursuit of revenge.
Diversifying from whaling into fishing, Loftsson long ago became one of the wealthiest men in Iceland.
Now, more than anyone else, observed Nick Miller, European correspondent for Sydney Morning Herald, in June 2015, Loftsson keeps Iceland involved in whaling, irrespective of expense.
“This croaky-voiced millionaire is well connected politically (even by the standards of an island where just about everyone knows everyone), short and defiant,” Miller wrote.
Agreed Tom Mackenzie and Ed Kiernan of Bloomberg News in September 2015, “If there’s one man keeping Iceland’s controversial whaling industry alive, it’s Kristjan Loftsson.”
“He believes the world has wrongly turned against him,” International Fund for Animal Welfare representative Sigursteinn Masson told Mackenzie and Kiernan.
Loftsson sees himself as the superhero in a “battle between good and evil,” Masson explained.
“Masson says Loftsson’s continued anger is what drives him on,” summarized Mackenzie and Kiernan. Hardly anyone seems to disagree.
Lost $12.5 million killing whales in 2014-2015
Killing 134 fin whales in 2014 and 155 in 2015, Hvalur reportedly lost $12.5 million USD over those two years. But Loftsson suspended whaling in 2016-2017, he told media, only because of the “red tape” he had to deal with in exporting whale meat to Japan.
Earlier, Loftsson suspended whaling in 2011-2012 because of weak Japanese demand. One of his major customers in Japan, the British-based Environmental Investigation Agency and the U.S.-based Animal Welfare Institute discovered, was Michinoku Farm, a maker of high-end dog treats.
Michinoku Farm quit selling the dog treats after an explosion of public outrage at the revelation.
Fuels ships with whale oil
The dog treats upstaged the revelation by Philip Hoare of The Guardian just a few weeks before that “Loftsson is powering his whaling ships using “biofuel” composed of 80% diesel and 20% whale oil. Loftsson claims the oil is additionally friendly to the environment,” Hoare wrote, “as it is rendered out of whale blubber using heat from Iceland’s volcanic vents.”
Recalled Hoare, “Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, written in 1851, includes a darkly poetic riff on the industrial process of rendering whale blubber, using scraps of whale fat as tinder: ‘Like a plethoric burning martyr, or a self-consuming misanthrope, once ignited, the whale supplies his own fuel and burns by his own body. The rushing Pequod, freighted with savages and laden with fire, and burning a corpse, and plunging in that blackness of darkness, seemed the material counterpart of her monomaniac commander’s soul.”
Japan excluded Icelandic whale meat in 2016-2017
Reports have indicated for decades that the dwindling Japanese market for whale meat is more than glutted by “research whaling” in Antarctic and Pacific waters.
Japan has bought some whale meat from Norway and Iceland nonetheless, apparently to help underwrite their whaling industries and help keep those nations aligned with Japan in international whaling and fishing treaty politics.
But as the Japanese “research whaling” industry economically struggled, Japanese officials in 2016-2017 found reason to exclude Icelandic whale meat imports for purportedly failing to meet health standards.
Captain High Liner
“Japanese bureaucracy has not been the only obstacle Loftsson has faced,” noted Paul Fontaine of The Reykjavík Grapevine on March 10, 2017. “The U.S. government has said they may institute economic measures against Iceland because of whaling, and an international petition targeting Hvalur specifically has garnered over a million signatures at the time of this writing.”
Earlier, in 2014, the Icelandic newspaper Vidskiptabladid recalled, “The U.S. firm High Liner Foods elected not to renew contracts with HB Grandi over the latter’s links to whaling, and said it would not renew them until the links were gone,” but even after selling more than a third of his shares, Loftsson remains heavily invested in HB Grandi.
Despite the possible economic consequences of continued whaling, Loftsson himself contends he is chiefly pursuing financial opportunity.
“Commercially viable again”
“An apparent loosening of Japanese regulations on Icelandic exports has made the resumption of the hunting commercially viable again,” wrote Guardian correspondent Daniel Boffey, from Brussels, Belgium.
Hvalur, continued Boffey, “has plans to collaborate with researchers from the University of Iceland to develop medicinal products made of whale blubber and bones, aimed at combating iron deficiency.
“Iceland’s whaling season opens on June 10, 2018,” Boffey said. “The authorities have granted a quota of 161 fin whales in 2018, compared to 150 in 2017,” when none were killed. “In addition, Hvalur’s two ships are entitled to hunt 20% of its unused quota from last year, which means it will be allowed to hunt an 30 additional whales.”
But the “authorities” allowing the killing are in Reykjavík, the Icelandic capital, not in Brussels, headquarters of the European Union.
Shot across the bow of the European Union
The significance of the Hvalur announcement in Brussels appears to be that it represents a shot from Loftsson across the bow of European Union representatives who continue to court Icelandic membership.
That Iceland would join the European Union appeared imminent in 2009, but the Icelandic coalition government froze membership negotiations after the fishing industry––led by Loftsson among others––vehemently opposed the EU Common Fisheries Policy.
As his last official act before the previous ruling coalition collapsed, then-fisheries minister Einar Gudfinnsson increased the Hvalur fin whaling quota to 150, after only seven fin whales were killed in the preceding three years.
EU likely to end whaling
The European Union “would be likely to demand an end to whaling as a condition of membership,” explained BBC News environment correspondent Richard Black.
By allowing Loftsson to expand Hvalur operations, Gudfinnsson helped to entrench the Icelandic whaling and fishing industries as obstacles to EU membership.
That strategy, so far successful, can only continue to succeed so long as conservatives favoring a resource-based economy retain control of the government, in a nation whose fastest-growing economic sectors include telecommunications, financial services, and tourism––all of which would benefit from EU membership.
Polls commissioned by the International Fund for Animal Welfare reportedly found that support from Icelanders for hunting fin whales fell from 80% in 2009 to 42% in October 2016, and to 35.4% just one year later.
The other Icelandic whaler
Besides Hvalur, there is one other Icelandic whaling company, IP-Utgerd Ltd., owned by Gunnar Bergmann Jonsson. Jonsson hunts only minke whales, the smallest of the “great whales,” the species most intensively hunted by the Norwegian and Japanese whaling fleets.
Jonsson, according to Nick Miller of the Guardian, is the “young working-class alter ego of Loftsson, shaven-headed and friendly,” but “clearly tired of journalists questioning his livelihood,” and “dismissive of international compassion for whales – he believes it’s drummed up by groups such as Greenpeace as donation bait, but doesn’t reflect deep beliefs.”
As of June 2017, according to Iceland Review writer Larissa Kyzer, about 65% of the minke whale meat that Jonsson lands “is sold to local restaurants. The rest of the catch is sold to local grocery stores. Around 100 restaurants in Iceland serve whale steak, half of them all year-round.”
“Foodies” vs. whale-watchers
The customers are mostly tourists. A 2016 Gallup poll found that 81% of Icelanders said they had not purchased whale meat in the last 12 months, and only 3% often eat whale meat, but an International Fund for Animal Welfare found that 12% of visitors to Iceland tried whale meat in 2016.
But whale meat consumption by visiting “foodie” thrill-seekers is rapidly falling off. Forty percent of visitors to Iceland tried whale meat in 2009, but only 18% in 2014, according to similar IFAW surveys.
Elding Whale Watching, meanwhile, founded in 2000, now hosts more than 230,000 guests per year aboard two vessels. Whale-watching is worth about $1.3 billion a year to the Icelandic economy, 99% of it foreign exchange.
In all likelihood the Icelandic whaling industry will die soon after Loftsson, if not sooner.
The Norwegian whaling industry, mostly targeting minke whales in coastal waters, may not survive much longer.
Though Norway set a 2018 whaling quota of 1,278 whales, the 11 Norwegian whaling vessels still active, from a fleet including as many as 350 vessels circa 1950, killed just 432 whales in 2017, down from 660 in 2015.
About 90% of the whales killed in recent years were females, according to the Norwegian public television network NRK.
Whales blamed for fewer fish
Among those Norwegians who continue to support the whaling industry, an erroneous belief persists that minke whales are responsible for declining fish stocks. In truth, Norwegian coastal waters and the North Sea have been aggressively over-fished at least since the United Kingdom confronted the fishing fleets of other nations during the “Cod Wars” waged from the 1950s until the U.K. joined the European Union in 1973.
Now, as in other northern waters, native fish species used to a colder climate are suffering from the effects of global warming––but Norway is also a major petroleum-producing nation, via offshore drilling and pumping platforms. As in the U.S. and Canada, climate change denialism fueled by the fossil fuel industry remains politically potent.
Blaming whales is politically the easy way out from having to take unpopular actions to reduce carbon emissions.
Earlier, the Norwegian whaling industry was propped up for decades largely through the influence of Steinar Bastesen, 73, a Loftsson-like character who first sailed on a whaling expedition in 1953, at age 8. Bastensen, like Loftsson, holds a longstanding personal grudge against the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society.
Purchasing his own first whaling vessel in 1971, Bastesen was forced out of whaling, temporarily, when Norway from 1986 to 1993 observed the International Whaling Commission moratorium on commercial whaling.
After Norway reauthorized whalers to kill minke whales in 1993, Bastesen clashed bitterly in a broadcast war of words with Sea Shepherd Conservation Society founder Paul Watson.
Watson in 1997 alleged in an NRK interview that Bastesen had threatened to kill him. Bastesen sued NRK for libel, winning in Oslo District Court but losing in 2002 after NRK appealed.
Whales fed to farmed mink & foxes
Long involved in politics, Bastesen meanwhile won election to the Norwegian Parliament, called the Storting, in 1997, then cofounded the culturally conservative and economically traditionalist Coastal Party.
Remaining in the Storting until 2005, Bastesen as recently as 2017 attempted a political comeback.
Only about one Norwegian in 20 eats any whale meat at all, and those who do eat whale meat consume less than half a pound per year on average.
Therefore, the meat from as many as 75 whales per year is sold to Rogaland Pelsdyrfôrlaget, the largest Norwegian maker of food for mink and fox fur farms, according to archival research by the Environmental Investigation Agency and the Animal Welfare Institute.