From Iceland — Gimme Some Whale

Gimme Some Whale

Published September 9, 2013

Gimme Some Whale

I remember the first time I tried whale meat. It was the early ‘90s, and I was a ten-year-old living in the small fishing village of Sandgerði, near Keflavík airport. Although whaling had been forbidden for some years, my mother one day received part of a minke whale calf as a gift from a local fisherman. The poor calf probably ended its days in a fishing net, the ocean’s version of a terra firma road kill.
For the next few months, we had that calf for every lunch and dinner. My mum, bless her, tried her best to get us to eat the damn thing. She made whale goulash, whale stew, roasted whale, fried whale—whatever meat recipe you can think of, with whale taking the place of pork, beef or whatever. Apparently, whale meat doesn’t store well in your normal everyday household fridge and nothing could hide the ever-growing whale oil taste of the meat as the experiment went on. By spring, even the family cat had had enough.
So that was the story of how I ate whale for one winter during my childhood and, needless to say, a few years would pass before I dared to try whale again. In fact, the next time I consumed whale was as an adult, during the summer of 2003 when then editor of this very publication and I enjoyed an 18-year-old deep frozen fin whale steak at the only place in the world still serving such food, the restaurant Þrír Frakkar. This was obviously for journalistic purposes. I didn’t hate it, but I didn’t like it either. It was kinda like bad beef. Since 2003, I’ve had whale numerous times, mostly in the form of whale sushi. Last Monday, I ate cooked minke whale for the first time in over 20 years. It was pretty great, although the experience did bring some bad memories, especially the mild oily aftertaste. Still, it wasn’t bad overall, and I’ll probably eat it again. However, the whale I ate this time was probably not accidentally killed, rather hunted by a whaler, in a whaling boat, using a harpoon. This is a big plus.
On The Pointlessness Of It
This brings me to a point I wanted to make about killing whales. There was an article in Grapevine’s last issue titled “The Wrong Kind of Whale Watching.” It describes journalist Rebecca Louder’s road trip to the whaling station of Hvalur hf. in Hvalfjörður (I love how they situate their whaling station in a fjord called “Whale fjord”), with a group of protesters. So they go there and watch the whale being dismembered while protestors hold signs that say “What’s the point?” rather than something like “Save the Whale” or “Stop the Killing.”
As for the protestors’ question, “What’s the point?” I’m pretty sure Mr. Kristján Loftsson co-owner of Hvalur hf., is the only person capable of answering that. Some of his board members at Hvalur hf. don’t even all agree that killing whales is good business. But that is what this comes down to really. Killing those whales is not, if recent scientific research is to be believed, endangering the species at all.
Let’s elaborate on that a little. Two species of whale are currently being hunted in Iceland: minke whale and fin whale. According to The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), the official authority on threatened species, minke whales (l. Balaenoptera acutorostrata or Common Minke Whale) are not endangered; they are categorised under “Least Concern.” According to the same source, it is estimated that there are over 100,000 minke whales in the Northern Hemisphere and, according to an estimate made by the International Whaling Commission (IWC) in 2001, 30,100 to 63,100 of them inhabited in Icelandic coastal waters in 2001.  The Icelandic Marine Research Institute (IMRI) has proposed that in 2014 and 2015 the maximum of 350 minke whales are to be hunted annually around Iceland.
Unlike the minke whale, the IUCN lists the fin whales (l. Balaenopetra hysalus) as “endangered.” This is due to the fact that the IUCN list looks at the species as one worldwide population. It estimated in 2000 that there were 50,000 fin whales in the North-Atlantic Ocean and that as many as 25,800 of those live in the ocean around Iceland, Greenland, Jan Mayen and the Faeroes. Although the stock is struggling in places like Antarctica, which formerly had the largest population of fin whales, and is far from full recovery after heavy overhunting in the 20th century, it is not “endangered” everywhere. Thus, the IUCN says, “it must be recognized that a global category may not be the same as a national or regional category for a particular taxon,” when it comes to the fin whale population. The IMRI proposes that in 2014 and 2015 the maximum of 154 fin whales  are to be hunted annually around Iceland, believing the hunting will not endanger the fin whale population in the area, as it is in their opinion almost as large as it was before whaling began.
All right. So the argument for nature preservation is void, leaving the protesters with three arguments: killing whales is bad business, hence the latest protest, killing whales is bad PR and killing whales is ethically wrong. Let’s look at those arguments.
1. Killing Whales Is Bad Business
This one is probably true. Whale meat is not selling, for lack of a better metaphor, like water in a desert. At the moment, Hvalur hf. doesn’t have an overseas buyer after its Japanese clients cancelled their contract. As far as I can tell, this is a problem for the owners of Hvalur hf. to figure out. You don’t run a whole protest to tell other people to not run their business into the ground, do you? Furthermore, if it is bad business, the problem will eventually solve itself via bankruptcy. So that’s a dead end.
2. Killing Whales Is Bad PR
That part I get. Killing whales is probably bad PR for Iceland. If you want to fight that fight though, you have to direct your protest at the government of Iceland, which decides whether or not whales are to be killed. If someone could measure how bad the whale killing business is for Iceland’s PR, that would be good. Looking at the number of tourists visiting Iceland won’t help, as that number has been increasing since Iceland started killing whales again in 2003, jumping from 300,000 tourists to about 700,000 tourists today. Maybe we would have had even more tourists if it weren’t for the whale killing, but how can we really know? Perhaps this could be measured in the “goodwill” Iceland is missing out on or something, but such surveys have not been conducted as far as I know. So until someone gets off their lazy ass to measure the PR situation I’ve nothing to go on and neither do the protesters. Actually, according to Sigursteinn Másson, the spokesperson for the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW), tourists actually end up both watching whales and eating them, without really caring, thus sustaining whaling in Iceland.  This, Mr. Másson, describes as a problem that is comparable to watching and then eating gorillas in the Congo , which is a ludicrous statement, since gorillas in the Congo are critically endangered, whereas fin whales around Iceland are not, and in the case of minke whales, not even close.
3. Killing Whales Is Ethically Wrong
Killing a whale sometimes takes up to an hour, according to Mr. Másson. We can all agree on that being a bad thing, but does that mean that whale killing should cease or that the whalers need to improve their killing technology? Whale is wild game. In Iceland, so are reindeers, ducks, geese, etc. Killing wild game happens in nature, not in a slaughterhouse, so the kill is sometimes not “clean.” Still, we’ve come a long way from beating wild animals to death with rocks and bats. They are now generally killed with precision and modern technology, minimizing the potential suffering. And, opposed to most domesticated animals, wild game is wild. That is, they have it a hell of a lot better their whole life, up until coming head, heart or flesh on with a harpoon or a bullet. Or in most cases, a non-human inflicted death, which is probably not that pleasant.
At the same time, the slaughtering methods for domesticated animals has also improved greatly in the past decades. This is a good thing, both for the animals themselves and for the quality of the meat, since a relaxed animal tends to taste better than a distressed one. And bear in mind, regarding the domesticated animals, that some of them never even saw the light of day before being put out of their misery. This brings up the question of whether it is better to live free and die hard, or to be born and bred in captivity to have a clean, almost clinical death (yup, that was a Die Hard pun).
So, even if the odd whale, reindeer or goose takes a long time to die, or the odd animal suffers needlessly in the slaughterhouse due to a mistake or an accident, should we simply stop eating and killing them? Well, we should obviously do everything we can to avoid needless animal suffering and all that, but me, I’ll be at home, eating my minke whale steak and grilled lamb chops, hoping that the animal I’m eating lead a happy life, and met its end in the most humane fashion possible. Even though I am aware that sometimes these things go wrong. Those who can’t handle knowing how the “sausage gets made” can obviously opt for not eating warm-blooded mammals. And then go protest the pointless business plans of Hvalur hf.
Feel free to send hate mail to: Jón Trausti

See also:
Whale Meat Being Returned To Iceland
Reconciling Whale Watching And Whaling
Whale Hunting Continues Despite Uncertainty Over Shipping
Fin Whale Sold As Dog Food In Japan

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