From Iceland — The Indefensible Defence Of An Obsolete Industry

The Indefensible Defence Of An Obsolete Industry

Published September 8, 2023

The Indefensible Defence Of An Obsolete Industry
Photo by
Boris Niehaus / Hard To Port

Examining the past, present and still uncertain future of whaling in Iceland

“It’s been a crazy day,” Valgerður Árnadóttir says, a clear tone of concern in her voice as she looks out the large picture windows of Röst café toward the long pier of Reykjavík’s old harbour. The area is always bustling with activity of tourists shuffling onto the large whale watching ships docked there or, in more recent years, the agile RIB boats that promise to get thrill-seeking nature lovers up close to puffins, harbour porpoises and the massive, majestic whales swimming in the cold seas not far off Iceland’s coast.

But Vala isn’t taking in the scenery. The point that she is squinting to focus on is the location of two ships at the far end of the pier, with prominent red smokestacks each marked with the letter H and equipment on their bow wrapped shrouded by brown tarpaulins. High in the crow’s nests, mere specks from this distance, are two women, occupying the masts to prevent the ships from leaving the pier.

The Escalation

My name is Anahita Babaei and I am part of the growing group of people here in Iceland that is against whaling. We are doing what we can to stop these ships from leaving the harbor [sic] and kill up to 209 fin whales.

Right now I am in the mast of Hvalur 9 where I will be staying for as long as I can to stop the ships from going out to sea.

The reason why I am doing this is not to cause trouble for anyone directly apart from the owners of Hvalur hf. I understand though that my actions will affect other groups of people indirectly, and to them I would like to apologize in advance. The actions of the owners of Hvalur hf. affect many people and so action against them will also do the same.

If a law is unjust, one is not only right to disobey it, one is obliged to do so. #stopwhaling

So posted Anahita Babaie to Instagram in the early morning of September 4, the accompanying video filmed from 10 metres above the deck of the old whaling ship pans over a still sleeping Reykjavík illuminated only by street lights.

Filmmaker Anahita and activist Elissa Bijou climbed the masts of Hvalur 8 and Hvalur 9, Iceland’s only active whaling vessels, that morning with the aim of postponing the hunt that Minister of Agriculture and Fisheries Svandís Svavarsdóttir announced on August 31 could resume with the start of September. Protesters had positioned themselves on the pier immediately after the news broke, but this was an escalation of that action.

In den frühen Morgenstunden des vierten September 2023 besetzten 2 Aktivisten die Aussichtsplattformen der beiden Walfangschiffe HVALUR 8 und HVALUR 9 des Fischereiunternehmens Hval.hf die im Hafen von Reykjavik liegen. Das Walfangverbot wurde am 1.9.2023 aufgehoben. Die islaendische Polizei und Feuerwehr beginnen umgehend mit den Massnahmen die Aktivisten von den Schiffen zu holen. Foto: Boris Niehaus

Anahita Babaei in the crow’s nest of Hvalur 9 Sept. 4, 2023. Photo: Boris Niehaus / Hard To Port

“It’s been an emotional day,” Vala says, eyes still darting intermittently toward the ships some 50 metres away. The chairperson of the Icelandic Vegan Society and a deputy MP for the Pirate Party, Vala has been stationed at the harbour every day, along with a rotating cast of supporters called to action by the group Hvalavinir, for which Vala acts as a spokesperson. Joining Vala at the harbourside café for a brief respite, a hot coffee and an outlet to charge their devices are Hvalavinir members Micah Garen and Hera Hilmarsdóttir.

“When I asked Anahita if she really wanted to do this, because it’s a huge sacrifice, she sort of…” Micah begins before his voice starts to crack under the weight of his emotion. Composing himself, he continues, “she thought about it for a second and said, ‘You know, I could save two whales.’ It’s just that. There’s nothing left at this point but that.”

Micah is an American filmmaker who, along with his colleague Anahita, has been coming to Iceland over the past year working on a documentary on whaling in Iceland titled, The Last Whaling Station.

It was in his capacity as a filmmaker that he first met Hera, a noted Icelandic actress, at the 2022 Reykjavík International Film Festival. He and Anahita approached Hera about doing voice work on their film.

She thought about it for a second and said, “You know, I could save two whales.” It’s just that. There’s nothing left at this point but that.

“I was a bit like, ‘okay,’” Hera recalls of their request. “I had my opinions on whaling, but I felt – like many Icelanders, and probably more than just Icelanders – I wasn’t really sure what is really the truth about it all? Or why are we doing it? Why should we not be doing it?”

“There are a lot of reasons that are emotional and then there’s the science,” she continues. “So I said, ‘okay, if I’m going to be involved in this in some way, I need to know more.’”

It was at that point that Hera began researching Iceland’s whaling history and current practices and asking herself why she – and Icelanders in general – didn’t know more or speak more about the practice.

“At first, I was a little bit scared of it in a way, I was scared to be vocal about what I was finding,” Hera admits. “Because the feeling is that you are not allowed to talk about this. Because anything that has to do with the sea and is close to the fisheries, you better not comment on at all. And so I felt a little bit apprehensive about it all. But the more I started learning, the more I felt that if I decided to not say anything, or just be neutral, then I’m making a decision to support it.”

It was when she began researching whaling and opening up to others about her findings that Hera met more and more people interested in the cause. “And then I started meeting people like Vala and suddenly we were just this big group called Hvalavinir [“Friends of the Whales” in English] – because that’s where we are.”

Hvalavinir is more than Vala, Hera and Micah, though. It’s an umbrella organisation that includes the Icelandic Vegan Society, the Animal Welfare Association of Iceland, the Iceland Nature Conservation Association, the Icelandic Environment Association, and The Icelandic Youth Environmentalist Association.

And they’ve had an eventful summer.

The Backstory

The history of whaling around Iceland is long and storied. While Icelanders engaged in spear-drift whaling, whereby hunters in open row boats would stab a whale with a marked spear so that it could be identified and claimed when it later drifted ashore, it was whalers from other nations that would engage in more established whaling operations in Icelandic waters.

Basque whalers were active in Icelandic waters in the 17th century and established a whaling station in Steingrímsfjörður in the Westfjords region of the country at that time. The Basque were followed in the same century by whalers from Norway, Denmark and the Netherlands, who in turn were followed in the coming centuries by American, French and still more Norwegian whalers, who established stations throughout the Westfjords and along the East coast of the country.

Hvalur’s ships depart Hvalfjörður Sept. 6, 2023 to hunt. Photo: Boris Niehaus / Hard To Port

Iceland, however, was too poor a nation to develop its own whaling operations, and so little to no domestic whaling existed.

It was in 1948 with the establishment of the company Hvalur hf. that domestic commercial whaling began to scale up. From its establishment through to 1975, Hvalur killed 250 fin whales, 65 sei whales and 78 sperm whales, plus several blue and humpback whales, on average each year.

Iceland was too poor a nation to develop its own whaling operations, and so little to no domestic whaling existed.

The decades that followed morphed into a maze of regulation for a nation finally whaling for itself in a world that was simultaneously waking up to the unsustainability and inhumaneness of the practice. The International Whaling Commission (IWC), of which Iceland was a member since its establishment in 1949, voted in 1982 that a moratorium on commercial whaling would come into effect in 1986.

Iceland was permitted to continue scientific whaling for research purposes from 1986 through 1989, but then withdrew from the IWC in 1991. A lot of back and forth unfolded between Iceland and the IWC from that time through 2003 when Iceland rejoined the commission and made the tie-breaking vote in favour of being allowed to resume scientific whaling, which it did from 2003 to 2007.

It was during this period, in October 2006, that Independence Party MP and then Minister of Fisheries Einar Kristinn Guðfinnsson issued Hvalur a licence for commercial whaling, setting an annual quota of 9 fin whales and 30 minke whales.

That quota remained in place until the government, of which Einar was a member, was being brought down in the midst of the financial collapse and mass protests of 2008 and 2009. Before leaving office, though, Einar increased Hvalur’s commercial whaling quota to a massive 150 fin whales and 100 minke whales – figures that incoming Minister of Fisheries and Agriculture and Left-Green Movement MP Steingrímur J. Sigfússon let stand.

Hvalur has been whaling since, save for years when demand waned in Japan – the only major market for its catch – and during the global pandemic. Hvalur’s current licence to hunt fin whales expires at the end of 2023.

Kristján Loftsson has been the CEO and largest shareholder in Hvalur hf. since 1975 when he took over the company following the death of his father, Loftur Bjarnasson.

The Politics

The politics of whaling in Iceland brings us back to what has been playing out this summer.

The 2022 whaling season saw 148 whales killed, which, while upsetting for anti-whaling activist and the health of the oceans, is not out of the ordinary for Iceland. But the season drew significant public attention because of special oversight that had been undertaken of the hunt and a damning report prepared thereafter by the Icelandic Food and Veterinary Association (MAST).

Though Hvalur hf. has long maintained that whales die immediately after being harpooned, MAST reported that the median time it took for the whales to die was 11.5 minutes, with some struggling for life for more than two hours.

Though Hvalur hf. has long maintained that whales die immediately after being harpooned, MAST reported that the median time it took for the whales to die was 11.5 minutes, with some struggling for life for more than two hours. A total of 36 whales needed to be shot more than once, with five shot three times and four shot five times. One whale was pursued for more than five hours with a harpoon in its back. It eventually got away, likely fatally injured. Of the whales killed, 73% were female, 11 were pregnant and one was lactating, meaning its young would have died soon after being orphaned.

A panel of animal welfare professionals was tasked by MAST to assess whether Iceland’s commercial whaling could meet the objectives of Iceland’s law on animal welfare. It concluded that the methods employed in hunting large whales do not comply with the law.

Svandís Svavarsdóttir on screen in front of Hvalur hf ships / Boris Niehaus

Minister of Agriculture and Fisheries Svandís Svavarsdóttir on screen with Hvalur 8 and Hvalur 9 in the background. Photo: Boris Niehaus / Hard To Port

As a result, Minister of Fisheries and Agriculture and Left-Green MP Svandís Svavarsdóttir announced June 20 that the whaling season would not begin as scheduled on June 21 and a committee would be convened to conduct further investigation and determine whether the hunt could resume on Sept. 1.

“We think that the report that was issued by MAST gave plenty of grounds to stop whaling immediately,” says Pirate Party MP Þórhildur Sunna Ævarsdóttir. “However, [Svandís] chose to go convene a specialised committee on the welfare of animals and waited for the results of that committee to come in – after the parliament has gone into recess – to come out and say that she was not able to allow them to hunt because of the committee opinion.”

 I think that Kristján Loftsson is a very powerful man within the Independence Party and this is just a clear sign of the corruption in Iceland.

“And of course, Parliament has been in recess since she banned whaling and also now that she has permitted it again,” Sunna continues, referring to Svandís’ announcement on Aug. 31 that the whaling season would resume from Sept. 1, with certain conditions in place.

Among the conditions placed on the truncated 2023 whaling season are “detailed and stricter requirements for fishing equipment, fishing methods and increased supervision. The requirements concern training, education, fishing equipment and fishing methods,” according to a government notice. But Sunna points to a flaw in the arrangement.

“The conditions that the minister claims to be imposing on Hvalur will not actually come into force until September 18,” she points out. “So this is some kind of charade to say, on the one hand in the beginning of summer, that [whaling] is contravening the laws on animal welfare and it is unconscionable for the minister to allow … because of the methods and the lack of conditions for killing them humanely, and then to allow whaling for more than two weeks under the exact same legal conditions as before.”

She continues, “the plausible explanation for her re-allowing wailing is simply that she couldn’t withstand the political pressure of her colleagues in the government and had to re-allow it despite the legal requirements not being met in any sense of that word.”

That alleged political pressure comes down to Hvalur’s CEO Kristján Loftsson’s significant influence within the Independence Party, which is part of the ruling coalition government with Svandís’ Left-Greens and the Progressive Party.

Kristján Loftsson, der Geschaeftsfuehrer der Firma Hvalur hf., wie er in seinem Auto die Walfangstation in der Bucht Hvalfjörður verlaesst. Hier werden gejagte Wale verarbeitet. Foto: Boris Niehaus

Kristján Loftsson departing the whaling station Sept. 6, 2023. Photo: Boris Niehaus / Hard To Port

So tight is Kristján’s connection with the party that investigative media Heimildin reported in 2019 that it took a mere email from the Hvalur CEO to then fisheries minister and Independence Party MP Kristján Þór Júlíusson in 2018 to have regulations applicable to his operations changed.

“I think that Kristján Loftsson is a very powerful man within the Independence Party and this is just a clear sign of the corruption in Iceland,” Vala says on Kristján’s sway with the Independence Party. “Even if something is so wrong, in so many ways, as whaling is, they will try to protect his right, as an owner of these ships to hunt whales. And it is because he is a very wealthy, powerful man within the Independence Party.”

The Progressive Party, meanwhile, Vala claims to be constantly fear mongering of the slippery slope that if whaling were to be ended, the environmentalists would come for the fisheries next.

For her part, Fisheries Minister Svandís insists that political pressure had no bearing on her decisions. “The decision was not in any way influenced by members of the other parties in government talking about a possible vote of no confidence,” she wrote in an email to the Grapevine. “My decision was based on the recommendations of the expert panel and advice from my ministry. As a minister, I must base all my decisions on the applicable law, which in this instance is for example the law regarding animal welfare, whaling, and the right to pursue one’s occupation of choice, protected by the Icelandic constitution.”

Sunna maintains, however, that Svandís’ colleagues in the Independence and Progressive Parties were making “very public and aggressive threats.”

I don’t think that this government is going to solve this problem whatsoever, I think that they will be stuck like this.

“The leader of the parliamentary group of the Independence Party, for example, said that if [Svandís] wouldn’t rectify her decision of banning whaling, she would not get any of her bills passed for the rest of the term in office,” she says. “And the leader of the Independence Party claimed that [the delay to the whaling season], had put a sour mood into the cooperation between the parties,” while other Independence Party MPs “accused the Minister of breaking administrative law and even went so far as accusing her of breaking the constitutional rights of this whaling boat owner and the employees of Hvalur with her decision.”

The Economics

The politics of fisheries aside, Iceland’s economic cash cows of recent years – tourism and the film industry – are projected to take a direct financial hit from the decision to allow the whaling season to resume. Meanwhile, Hvalur hf. operates at a loss of tens of millions of krónur each year.

“Whaling has been a negligible part of Iceland’s economy for over a hundred years,” Svandís admitted in her email.

In the direct aftermath of the minister’s Aug. 31 announcement, the Association of Icelandic Film Producers called on the government to ban whaling and a growing list of international film directors and actors have vowed not to work in Iceland so long as whaling is permitted. Among them are actors Jason Momoa, Leonardo DiCaprio and Hilary Swank and director James Cameron.

Icelandic film and TV production company Truenorth went a step further and filed for an injunction against Hvalur hf., with attorney Katrín Oddsdóttir saying that Hvalur’s operations will make it near impossible to secure international collaboration for film projects in Iceland.

“The international film community does about $150 million worth of business in Iceland every year, as opposed to the millions lost by the whaling company,” Micah points out.

“I am very concerned about it,” continues Hera, who has starred in a number of Icelandic and international productions, including the Apple TV+ series See, in which she starred alongside Jason Momoa. “In terms of what this would mean if this keeps spreading and people decide to not work in Iceland – we’ve done so much work to build up the industry here. And it’s good for all of us, not just the people in this industry. It’s bringing in so much money to the countryside. It’s bringing so much money and work to tiny places.”

Hera points to the small Westfjords village of Djúpavík as an example of the benefits of the growing film industry in Iceland. “Justice League filmed there and the Icelandic film Svar við bréfi Helgu,” she explains. “There’s not a lot of work there in the winter because it gets so isolated, so they need to get money in the summer. These kinds of productions that go to film in these places, they change the year for these people and make sure that these people don’t go out of business. So it has such a knock on effect, this decision [on whaling]. I think we really need to take this seriously and I think it’s a huge disrespect to the film industry and the tourism industry and the countryside and everyone to not take this seriously and to just brush it off as some kind of Hollywood bullshit. It’s just not okay.”

Protesters gather in front of the whaling ships in Reykjavík harbour Sept. 1, 2023. Photo: Boris Niehaus / Hard To Port

Putting the messaging of it being little more than “Hollywood bullshit” ahead of the very real economics of the matter is also something Sunna is concerned about.

“Understandably, it is something that both the tourist industry and the film industry are concerned about, and I think that we will see an economic impact of it,” she says. “But considering how politically charged this issue has been and how chauvinistically it has also been said in the debates that, ‘foreigners will not tell us how to make a living in Iceland,’ and so on and so forth. And ‘we are an independent nation’ – I think that will mean that people will dig down in their trenches and only get more extreme in their opinions on how to torture whales to death.”

He’s living like he’s Captain Ahab from a century ago and he’s dragging the rest of Iceland down with him.

“So I don’t think that this government is going to solve this problem whatsoever, I think that they will be stuck like this.”

In working on his documentary, Micah interviewed the head of Iceland’s tourist association this summer to ask about what impact the resumption of whaling would have on the industry. “He said, without a doubt, ‘we’re gonna lose 7,000 to 10,000 visitors at a minimum because of this whaling. That’s about $20 million dollars,” Micah shares. “And now I think it’s significantly more, the stakes are way higher.”

The Future

On September 5, after more than 28 hours spent occupying Hvalur’s ships, Anahita and Elissa descended from their perches. Anahita had been without water or supplies since the early hours of the action, having been forcibly stripped of her belongings by intervening police officers. They were both taken into police custody once back on solid ground.

With that, Hvalur 8 and Hvalur 9 departed Reykjavík harbour and relocated to Hvalur hf.’s whaling station in Hvalfjörður to prepare for this year’s hunt, which can last as long as conditions permit. Limited daylight and the poor weather that come with Icelandic autumn and winter will likely not allow the hunt to stretch far beyond September. But as Hvalavinir points out, Iceland’s sole whaler killed more whales in September 2022 than in the first three months of that whaling season.

According to a recent report, whaling has a negligible effect on Iceland’s economy and therefore it stands to reason it is not of national interest.

So it’s clear what the coming month holds for Iceland’s whaling operations, but what comes after that?

As mentioned, Hvalur hf.’s whaling licence expires at the end of this year, setting Svandís up to make a major decision about the future of whaling in Iceland.

Svandís told the Grapevine that, considering how “very, very little” whaling brings to Iceland, “this is a completely futile and obsolete industry that … nobody participates in except for this one man and his staff. I have said before that my belief is that data indicates that whaling is possibly more a thing of the past than the future, and the Left Green Party’s policy on whaling is that it should be banned. According to a recent report, whaling has a negligible effect on Iceland’s economy and therefore it stands to reason it is not of national interest.”

Hvalur 8 and Hvalur 9 pictured in Reykjavík harbour Sept. 5, 2023. Photo: Boris Niehaus / Hard To Port

Whether that indicates that Svandís will legislate an end to whaling or simply let the licence lapse without renewal remains to be seen – and many people will be watching.

“I think if she decides to renew it, it will be considered a betrayal of her values, of her party’s values,” Sunna speculates. “And then if she decides not to renew it, it will be considered a betrayal by the Independence Party, who believed that they were going into this governmental coalition with a tacit understanding that whaling would not be part of anything that this government intended to change.”

Sunna points out that the bigger decision will be around legislating the end of whaling, which would make it far more difficult to resume under another government. Her Pirate Party has invited all parties in Alþingi to back a bill to end whaling through legislation. It will be tabled once MPs return from their long summer vacation.

As for what Hvalavinir hopes to see happen, it’s simple: “Stop killing whales,” Micah says succinctly.

“It’s 2023,” he continues. “We’re battling an environmental crisis. You cannot be killing whales. It’s just absurd.”

“And who’s killing whales? One wealthy man who’s doing it because he likes to trophy hunt. He’s living like he’s Captain Ahab from a century ago and he’s dragging the rest of Iceland down with him. It’s a travesty, a tragedy.”

The Grapevine reached out to Hvalur hf for comment on this article. They did not respond.

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