Every whaling season, environmentalist and animal rights groups at home and abroad raise the alarm: Iceland is still hunting whales. While it is true that culpability for letting whaling happen does rest upon many different offices, there is only one company left that still hunts protected fin whales: Hvalur hf., led and kept alive by the company’s CEO Kristján Loftsson. Their practices have often been dubious, and Kristján seems to enjoy the anger he evokes in many, but this time he may have gone too far.
Early in July, Hvalur hf. returned from a whaling run with an unusual conundrum: an enormous whale with a distinctive bluish-grey hue lay at the whaling station in Hvalfjörður. Numerous photos were taken of the creature from a clandestine location. Apart from the colour, the placement and shape of its fins were also quite different from a fin whale—one species hunted by Hvalur hf.. It seemed, to marine biologists who viewed the photos, that the animal in question was a blue whale, or at the very least a rare fin-blue hybrid.
The distinction between the two is important. Hunting endangered blue whales is flat-out illegal, even by Icelandic law. Any company that killed a blue whale would have their operations grounded immediately, and it could result in additional penalties. Inexplicably, though, hunting a hybrid of a blue and another whale is perfectly legal by Icelandic law, even if the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) expressly forbids the practice.
Once experts at the Marine and Freshwater Research Institute of Iceland got around to testing the DNA of the posthumously famous Whale 22 — after observers noted Hvalur hf. staff had mixed the meat of the contentious whale with that of previously slaughtered fins — it was found to be a rare fin-blue hybrid, with its mother having been a blue and the father a fin whale. Still, many at home and abroad are left wondering why this practice continues, given all the facts.
Supply-side economics on steroids
First, let’s be clear on one thing: Icelanders by and large do not eat whale meat. It is neither an ancient Viking tradition (industrial whaling in Iceland didn’t begin until the early 20th century) nor is it a significant part of the Icelandic diet. Opinion polls do show most Icelanders simply don’t care about whaling, although most of those who do have an opinion oppose it. So who is buying all this whale meat?
Tourists are the largest domestic market for minke whale—animals that are plentiful and not the least bit endangered. Fin whales, however, are exported to Japan. Whether there’s a market there is dubious at best, with publicly available records showing that the exports are definitely not profitable.
In 2015, business newspaper Viðskiptablaðið went over the yearly financial records for Hvalur hf. While the company reported a profit of 3 billion ISK, up about half a billion from the year previous, a closer look told a different story. Viðskiptablaðið found that when operational costs—such as maintaining ships, running the whaling centre in Hvalfjörður and export costs—were subtracted from the company’s revenue from whale meat, the difference amounted to a loss of 72.5 million ISK. In point of fact, the majority of Hvalur hf.’s positive earnings came from its shares in the company Vogun hf., which is the largest shareholder of the fishing company HB Grandi. Vogun, in turn, is 99.8% owned by Hvalur hf.
If running a whaling company loses money, why even bother? To understand this, you need to understand the reactive petulance of a man like Kristján Loftsson.
The US government has said they may institute economic measures against Iceland because of whaling, and an international petition targeting Hvalur hf. specifically has garnered over a million signatures. The hacktivist movement Anonymous has also gotten involved, with a persistent campaign against the hunting of fin whales, which has shut down government websites for hours at a time. Anonymous has pledged that the cyber attacks will continue until whaling ends. Most recently, 17 scientists in the fields of biology and marine life have issued a joint statement put forward that they consider it “a strong possibility” that Hvalur hf. did indeed kill a blue whale, and called upon the government to ground the company’s operations.
In response, Kristján complained to Iceland’s national broadcasting that the coverage was due to a “slow news period”, adding, “There is of course some kind of slow news period going on and this is being presented by the ‘anti-crowd’ in the worst possible light.”
This is basically Kristján in a nutshell. He almost seems to delight in the negative coverage. It allows him to maintain an image of being a strong, independent Icelander standing up to non-Icelandic forces who would try to bend his will. It plays into the same narrative that was evoked over Icesave, the European Union, and even the granting of citizenship to Bobby Fischer: plucky little Iceland will not be pushed around by foreigners.
Wait, don’t leftist environmentalists run the government?
Many people have astutely pointed out that the government could conceivably take away Hvalur’s permit to hunt fin whales. Indeed, the announcement made last May that whaling would resume again after a two-year hiatus came as a surprise to many, given the fact that the current government is led by the Leftist-Green Party.
The name of the party suggests where they stand on whaling. They have, as a part of their platform, expressed opposition to whale hunting, having stated in 2015 that such hunts are inhumane. However, the party has not issued any statement about this incident, which has been gaining international attention. Minister for the Environment Guðmundur Ingi Guðbrandsson, who is from the Leftist-Greens, would not comment to media outlet Stundin on the matter.
When the season ends at the close of the summer, it may very well be the last time whaling is conducted. Maybe that’s why the government is in no great hurry to crack down on Hvalur hf. Maybe they’re giving them one last hurrah before lowering the curtain on them. Whatever the reasons, a rare blue-fin hybrid died so that Kristján Loftsson can keep playing Captain Ahab, to no one’s benefit—not even his own, and certainly not Iceland’s.