Iceland suspends whaling after ANIMALS 24-7 exposes how killing whales wounded a whale-watching industry that brings in twice as much money
REYKJAVIK, Iceland––The two remaining Icelandic whaling companies, Hvalur, killing fin whales, and IP Útgerð, killing minke whales, on the afternoon of June 27, 2019 jointly announced that they will not go whaling this year, the first year since 2003 that there will be no Icelandic whaling season.
ANIMALS 24-7, at 7:05 a.m., Icelandic time, on June 27, 2019, published the original edition of the exposé below, “Whaling harpoons Icelandic tourism & the whole nation suffers,” demonstrating date by date over the past two years how escalating whaling by Hvalur and IP Útgerð coincided with a collapse of tourism that now threatens to implode the whole Icelandic economy.
ANIMALS 24-7 within minutes posted links to “Whaling harpoons Icelandic tourism & the whole nation suffers” to as many Icelandic tourism and media web pages and social media sites as possible. Many readers helped to amplify the exposé with cross-postings and “shares” among their own social media contacts.
“No whaling will take place in Icelandic waters this summer”
At 13:37 Icelandic time, the Icelandic National Broadcasting Service –– Ríkisútvarpið, called RÚV for short –– announced that “No whaling will take place in Icelandic waters this summer, it has been confirmed. The news is not the result of government intervention, but rather of commercial concerns. This will be the first time in 17 years that there will be no whaling.
“It has been confirmed that no whales of any type will be hunted,” RUV continued. “Minke whale hunters are going to concentrate on sea cucumbers this summer and the CEO of Hvalur, the only company that hunts great whales, exclusively for export to Japan, has said that market conditions in Japan are too difficult.”
According to RUV, Hvalur owner Kristján Loftsson “announced this spring that his company would not catch great whales this summer because it has proven difficult to market the meat in Japan, where 100 percent of the catch is exported to.” But Loftsson issued the same complaint in 2011-2012 and 2016-2017, only to resume whaling in 2018 on a bigger scale than ever before.
Added RUV, “Gunnar Bergmann Jónsson, CEO of IP útgerð, which hunts minke whales for domestic consumption, says his company is going to concentrate on sea cucumbers until 1st September.”
Humane Society of the U.S. president Kitty Block lost no time in declaring “victory” and claiming credit for the Icelandic suspension of whaling, but it was not HSUS that assembled the data showing the relationship between whaling and the tourism collapse, and then put it on desks all over Iceland first thing in the morning on the day the suspension was announced.
Reported ANIMALS 24-7
Tourism to Iceland is plunging faster than a harpooned great whale, sinking the national economy––and vengeance-driven Icelandic whalers may be doing the damage on purpose, with the help of isolationist conservative allies in government, partly to maintain the political primacy of the whaling and fishing industries, and partly just to weaken European cultural influence.
For the two remaining Icelandic whaling barons, Gunnar Bergmann Jonsson and Kristján Loftsson, the reputed “Captain Ahab” of the North Atlantic, the possibility that Iceland might join the European Union and accept E.U. regulation of whaling and fishing looms as an existential threat.
Loftsson, 76, who first went to sea in 1956 as a 13-year-old whale spotter aboard his father’s boat, personally remembers the so-called cod wars of 1958-1961, 1972-1973, and 1975-1976. Iceland then repeatedly used the threat of withdrawing from the North Atlantic Treaty Organization to force British fishers out of waters to which Iceland claims exclusive fishing rights.
Jonsson, much younger, has only heard about the cod wars. But both Loftsson and Jonsson present themselves as standard bearers for the traditions of Viking self-sufficiency and defiance of international authority that, in their view, characterize Iceland.
Meanwhile at the Keflavik International Airport, near Reykjavik, the Icelandic capital, “Visitors plunged 24 percent in May 2019 from the same period last year, and the all-important summer season is looking shaky,” reported Ragnhildur Sigurdardottir for the Bloomberg Media Group on June 23, 2019.
“For all of 2019, the number of visitors could drop 17%,” Sigurdardottir said, based on airline reservation data.
Tourism industry & Icelandic government in denial
But Sigurdardottir wrote nothing about the influence of Icelandic whaling on tourism to Iceland, and the Icelandic government has not acknowledged any relationship, despite numbers suggesting a clear and strong linkage.
Loftsson’s company, Hvalur, operating the only fin whaling fleet in Iceland, killing the largest and most easily seen whales native to Icelandic waters, killed no whales in 2016 and 2017 due to lack of money and markets for whale meat.
Killing whales at any cost
Hvalur killed 134 fin whales in 2014, and 155 in 2015, but reportedly lost $12.5 million USD in the effort.
To refinance Hvalur, Loftsson on April 19, 2018 sold 34% of his shares in the HB Grandi commercial fishing empire for $217.5 million.
While Loftsson might have feared being reduced to wearing a pickled herring barrel, Iceland as a whole prospered during his whaling moratorium as never before.
Tourism to Iceland soared 38% in 2016 alone, the first year since 2009 that Hvalur killed no whales.
Icelandic whale-watching revenue increased to more than $25 million in 2017, reportedly almost twice the peak value of the entire Icelandic whaling industry, according to University of Iceland data.
Tourism nearly passed fishing & whaling as leading employer
By the second quarter of 2018, the Icelandic hospitality industry employed 8,428 people, a 97% increase in 10 years, while employment in fishing and whaling slipped 3% to 8,875. These were the two largest industries in Iceland, distantly trailed by the insurance and financial services sector, employing 6,341, down 28% largely due to increased online banking and automation.
But Loftsson killed 191 fin whales in 2018, then secured permission from fisheries minister Kristjan Thor Juliusson to kill 209 fin whales per year through 2023.
Juliusson simultaneously authorized the only other Icelandic whaling company, IP-Utgerd Ltd., owned by Gunnar Bergmann Jonsson, to kill 217 minke whales per year through 2023.
Altogether, Juliusson signed the death warrants for more than 2,000 whales, and perhaps for the Icelandic whale-watching industry too.
Tourism crashed immediately
“Iceland’s tourism boom that saw the island nation’s visitor numbers quadruple in just seven years could be over,” warned Hugh Morris of The Telegraph on February 13, 2019––though without mentioning whales––soon after Juliusson issued the permits to kill whales.
But the decline in Icelandic tourism had actually begun in April 2018, immediately after Juliusson allowed Hvalur to kill 191 fin whales.
Enthusiasm for visiting Iceland to see whales was briefly displaced in social media comments by furious appeals––especially in Europe––for a boycott of anything and everything Icelandic.
The initial flurry of boycott demands subsided, but regained momentum after one of Loftsson’s ships on July 10, 2018 killed a hybrid fin/blue whale.
Photos and video of the dead whale were relayed to global media by the German organization Hard to Port, incorporated in October 2014 specifically to oppose the Icelandic whaling industry, and by the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society.
No major whale advocacy organization actually called for a boycott, not even Hard to Port and the Sea Shepherds. Indeed, whale advocacy leaders mostly pointed out that a boycott could backfire, undercutting Icelandic whale-watching and thereby reinforcing the whalers’ influence.
Polls commissioned by the International Fund for Animal Welfare and various Icelandic news organizations reportedly found that support from Icelanders for hunting fin whales fell from 80% in 2009 to 34% in 2018, with an equal number opposed and 31% undecided.
But choices of tourism destinations tend to be emotionally driven, and the very people who were most likely to choose Iceland were repelled by the images of bleeding whale carcasses that flooded electronic media.
“In 2010, fewer than 500,000 people made the trip to Iceland’s otherworldly shores,” Morris continued. “But after unprecedented publicity, following the eruption of [the Icelandic volcano] Eyjafjallajokull and its subsequent ash cloud, hundreds of thousands flocked to [Iceland] in search of remarkable natural landscapes and untouched volcanic vistas.”
Beginning as something else to do after viewing Eyjafjallajokull, whale-watching grew to supplant volcano visits as the leading Icelandic tourist attraction.
“In 2018, 2.3 million people visited,” Morris wrote. “However, according to new figures released by the Icelandic tourist board, January 2019 registered a 5.8 per cent fall in arrivals compared to the same month last year. The decrease represents the first since April 2018, and one of very few over the last seven years.
“The trend is easier to see in U.K. visitors,” Morris added, “for which there was a fall for every month of 2018 compared to 2017, as high as a 17.9 per cent slip in April 2018.”
“Whale meat is not a traditional dish”
Sigurdardottir and Morris are scarcely the only media pundits observing the Icelandic tourism meltdown without noting how closely the trends in tourism parallel the most publicized developments in whaling.
Indeed, only one prominent travel journalist appears to have seen the whale in the room: Canadian independent vegan travel blogger Lauren Yakiwchuk, author of Justin Plus Lauren, a site pitched at millennials –– who happen to be the age range to whom Icelandic adventures most appeal.
“Contrary to popular belief, whale meat is not a traditional dish in Iceland,” Yakiwchuk explained in December 2017, in her second column addressing Icelandic whale-watching and whaling.
“The amount of [Icelandic] restaurants serving whale meat doubled between 2007 and 2012,” Yakiwchuk wrote, “due to a rise in tourism. In 2009,” when most visitors were thrill-seekers attracted by the Eyjafjallajokull eruption, “40% of tourists visiting Iceland tried whale meat. Thankfully, due to outreach programs,” and due to the shift in visitor interest away from volcano-watching to whale-watching, “this number was reduced to 18% by 2014,” Yakiwchuk reported.
After describing the social media furor favoring a boycott of Iceland over whaling, Yakiwchuk opined, “I don’t think you should boycott traveling to Iceland. The real issue is that tourists won’t stop eating whale meat. Some travelers will take a whale watching tour, and walk right into a restaurant for a meal made of whale right after the tour is over. How could there possibly be such a disconnect?
“When I attended a whale-watching tour in Husavik,” Yakiwchuk continued, “the tour operators were quite vocal about stopping the whale hunt. They told everyone that tourists kept the whaling industry alive there. Not only should we stop eating these gentle giants, but we should boycott any restaurant that serves whale on its menu. I agree with them. If you see whale openly advertised or served on any menu, please do not dine at those restaurants.”
But Yakiwchuk may be a bit naïve about what really drives Icelandic whaling.
Parallel to the Icelandic tourism collapse, which is taking the money out of whale-watching, the long overfished capelin fish stock has collapsed, thirty years after the comparably overfished cod stock collapsed in Atlantic Canada.
Climate change driven by global warming suggests that the capelin stock may never recover to commercial abundance, just as the Atlantic cod stock has not recovered.
But just as Atlantic Canadian fishers tend to blame harp seals, and to a lesser extent grey seals, for the loss and non-recovery of cod, Icelandic fishers tend to blame minke and fin whales for the loss of capelin.
Reality is that minke and fin whales both mostly eat krill, sieved through the baleen filters that they have instead of teeth. Like other baleen whales, minke and fin whales eat only incidental quantities of fish. The fish they do eat, however, tend to be densely schooling species, including all of those of most economic value to Iceland: herring, cod, mackerel, pollock, sardines, and capelin.
Keeping Iceland out of the European Union
Maintaining independence from European Union fisheries regulation, including regulation of whaling, remains of paramount importance to the politically conservative Independence Party of Iceland, which ruled the country with little opposition from 1929 to 2009, and remains the largest party within the coalition government that has ruled ever since.
That Iceland would join the European Union appeared imminent after the Independence Party lost the parliamentary majority 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.
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.
Finally, for Loftsson, there is the revenge factor.
Much as Captain Ahab lost a leg to the great white sperm whale Moby Dick and then pursued Moby Dick around the world, at any and all cost, Loftsson appears to be driven chiefly by enduring fury that in November 1986 the anti-whaling activists Rod Coronado and David Howitt trashed the Hvalur whale processing plant in Hvalfjörður fjord, and scuttled two of his whaling ships in Reykjavík harbor, 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.
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.