But whaling baron Kristján Loftsson, 80, will not go down without a fight
REYKJAVIK, Iceland––Iceland minister of food, agriculture, and fisheries Svandis Svavarsdottir on February 4, 2022 indicated in a guest column for the newspaper and news web site Morgunblaðið that she may pull the plug on the nearly moribund Icelandic whaling industry.
But Kristján Loftsson, 80, chief executive of Hvalur, the last Icelandic whaling company, three days later suggested to Morgunblaðið that he is neither ready to give up his ships nor prepared to go down with them––certainly not without a political fight that could split the three-party coalition governing Iceland since 2017.
Does Svavarsdottir have the votes?
Among the 63 members of the Icelandic parliament, called the Althing, 29 members of the ruling coalition are currently socio-political conservatives and traditionalists.
The ruling coalition remains in power through an often shaky alliance with the eight elected members of the Left-Green Movement, including Svavarsdottir.
The two largest parties, however, the Independence Party and the Progressive Party, could jettison the Left-Green Movement and continue to rule if they could form a coalition with any of the five other parties holding Althing seats, three of which also lean right.
Asked Svavarsdottir in Morgunblaðið, “Why should Iceland take the risk of keeping whaling, which has not brought any economic gain, in order to sell a product for which there is hardly any demand?”
Only one whale killed since 2019
Svavarsdottir observed that whaling, rather than bringing in significant foreign exchange, has harmed the Icelandic economy.
Svavarsdottir cited for example that the U.S.-based chain Whole Foods Market quit selling Icelandic products when commercial whaling resumed in 2006.
Pointing out that the Hvalur fleet has killed only one whale in three years, a minke landed in 2021, Svavarsdóttir hinted that she might not renew the self-set Icelandic whaling quota for 2024.
The current quota, set in 2019, in effect through 2023, allows Icelandic whalers to kill up to 209 fin whales, a species recognized by the International Whaling Commission and International Union for the Conservation of Nature as globally endangered, along with 217 minke whales.
The smallest of the baleen whales, or rorquals, minke whales are also the most abundant species. Minke whales continue to be commercially hunted by Japan and Norway, though in numbers significantly below their own self-set quotas.
“Many things can happen”
“As I read Svavarsdóttir’s article,” Loftsson said of her critique of Icelandic whaling, “this is her private opinion. The government and the Althing,” the Icelandic parliament, “are in no way behind this.
“This year is 2022. Next year is 2023. Many things can happen at this time,” Loftsson added.
Iceland is currently the only other nation other than Japan and Norway with a legal commercial whaling industry, having left the International Whaling Commission and authorized a whale hunt every year since 2003.
The two remaining Icelandic whaling companies, Hvalur, killing fin whales, and IP Útgerð, killing minke whales, on June 27, 2019 jointly announced that they would not kill whales during the 2019 season.
Whaling vs. whale-watching tourism
The Icelandic National Broadcasting Service –– Ríkisútvarpið, called RÚV for short––recalled that Loftsson had suggested earlier that Hvalur would not go whaling in 2019 because of the difficulty of exporting whale meat to Japan, the only whale meat buyer in the international market.
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.
The June 2019 announcement came only hours after ANIMALS 24-7 published data––and distributed it extensively in Iceland––showing how each announcement of an Icelandic commercial whaling quota in recent years was soon followed by a drop in tourism.
Tourism, including whale-watching, is a mainstay of the Icelandic economy, while even for Hvalur and Útgerð, killing whales was a minor revenue stream.
Vengeance at any price
Utgerd, a year later, in 2020, said that it would not return to whaling.
Loftsson, though, one of the richest and most politically influential people in Iceland, has long been motivated by more than money.
Operating Hvalur despite huge annual losses, Loftsson on April 18, 2018 declared his intent to kill 191 fin whales that year––and a day later sold 34% of his shares in the HB Grandi commercial fishing empire, which he was instrumental in building, for $217.5 million, apparently to help finance the whale-killing
Loftsson’s father founded Hvalur, whose name means “whaler” in Icelandic, in 1947.
Loftsson first sailed with his father as a 13-year-old whale spotter in 1956. Loyalty to his father’s memory may have initially fueled Loftsson’s determination to keep whaling, come hell or high losses.
But Loftsson appears to be driven chiefly by a quest for personal vengeance. Anti-whaling activists Rod Coronado and David Howitt, acting under the flag of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, in November 1986 vandalized the Hvalur whale processing plant in Hvalfjörður fjord and scuttled the whaling ships Hvalur 6 and Hvalur 7 in Reykjavík harbor.
The Hvalur 6 and Hvalur 7 were both refloated, but were never repaired and returned to service. Loftsson replaced them with the Hvalur 8 and Hvalur 9, of similar appearance but newer construction.
Said Sea Shepherd Conservation Society founder Paul Watson, perhaps prematurely, “We’re very happy to see that whales will be safe in Icelandic waters.”
“Iceland was firmly on the pro-whaling side”
Somewhat more cautiously recalled Humane Society of the U.S. president Kitty Block, who previously headed the subsidiary Humane Society International, “Year after year, we battled with Iceland’s delegation to the International Whaling Commission and other treaty and international organizations. With other advocacy organizations, we pushed the U.S. government to reprimand Iceland for undermining the International Whaling Commission and the Convention on International Trade on Endangered Species.
“Iceland was firmly on the pro-whaling side in 1982,” Block continued, when the International Whaling Commission proposed the global moratorium on commercial whaling that has been in effect since 1986.
“Under strong political pressure, Iceland decided to abide by the ban, in principle,” said Block. “However, like Japan, Iceland continued whaling from 1985 to 1989 under a ‘scientific research’ loophole. When economic pressure threatened its valuable seafood industry exports, Iceland stopped whaling and withdrew from the IWC in 1992. Amidst controversy, it rejoined the commission and resumed whaling in 2003,” albeit with several subsequent interruptions.