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Whaling and Whale Watching in Iceland

Since mid-June, Iceland has slaughtered at least 17 endangered fin whales, the same whales that support a thriving whale watching industry.  The hunt is the first for two years and, despite the international ban on commercial whaling, Iceland has set itself a quota of 184 fin whales, potentially to be killed over the next few months. Much of the whale meat within Iceland is eaten by curious tourists rather than locals. Tourists mistakenly believe that whale meat is just another ‘traditional’ Icelandic dish but instead, are helping to keep this cruel industry alive. Recently WDC helped exposed the use of fin whale oil as fuel for the whaling vessels and that meat from these rare creatures was being fed to dogs in japan. Jake Levenson, a friend to WDC, witnessed this needless slaughter first hand, while on board a whale watching vessel in Iceland.  His thoughts of this account are below.  ~Regina Asmutis-Silvia

Sadly, Iceland is one of the few remaining countries that still engage in commercial whaling.    I’m constantly amazed at the ability of my Icelandic friends to operate a successful business in an environment where the very subject on which their business depends is being actively hunted.  The government seems to think Whale Watching and Whaling can coexist by drawing an arbitrary line in the water.  The problem is that whales, along with every other marine organism pay no attention to arbitrary borders us humans draw on maps, and thinking that separating whaling and whale watching will protect either enterprise is misguided.   

While out on a trip this past week, I witnessed two fin whales being dragged back for processing.  Fin whales, the second largest animal on the planet, may live more than 150 years and migrate thousands of miles, are being indiscriminately hunted in Iceland by just one company.  I’ve seen videos, read about and unfortunately been around my fair share of dead whales that have died as a result of bycatch, but this was my first time ever witnessing a whale that was intentionally killed.  It was a humbling experience and one that I felt awkward and didn’t know what I should do about the situation.  The guide on board that trip, a young guy named Ívar, sprung into action explaining how most Icelandic people don’t support whaling, and that nearly half the whale meat sold is Iceland is consumed by tourists.   He explained that if you want to really try something genuinely Icelandic try some waffles and rhubarb, not whale.  The tourists looked at each other, they didn’t realize that sampling some free whale meat in a restaurant could make a difference, ‘but it does, it’s used to justify more killing’ explained Ívar.   I was impressed by his ability to handle a situation that many would find overwhelming. He did so with tact, and with such professionalism in a situation few outside of Iceland could ever imagine being in. 

Iceland is a beautiful place to visit and if you do, I highly recommend going whale watching and supporting a tourism industry that’s working to actively protect whales.  Boycotting Iceland isn’t the answer; if you simply ignore the problem you don’t have a voice in the debate.  Come to Iceland, and make your voice heard in the businesses you patronize.

Jake Levenson is a conservation biologist and research coordinator for Elding Whale Watch, Iceland’s largest whale watching company.  Visit Elding.is for more information. 

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About Regina Asmutis-silvia

Executive director - WDC North America