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A good day to kill a whale?

This blog was written by WDC’s Social Media Coordinator, Anja Reckendorf, who is currently travelling in Iceland. Anja is a veterinarian as well as a conservationist and whale lover and below she gives her perspectives after witnessing the butchering of a fin whale.

“I LOVE Iceland. I can clearly say that I am IN LOVE with Iceland. It is one of the most beautiful places I have been to – and for my 27 years I have travelled quite a lot. But yesterday, this unconditional love suffered a setback. I know that Iceland is a whaling nation and I have seen the abandoned whaling station and the whaling ships in the winter, but to actually see a majestic, endangered fin whale being cut up into pieces is a different story.

When I heard that Kristján Loftsson, owner of the whaling company Hvalur (Icelandic for whale), was determined to mark Iceland’s National Day (17th June) by killing  his first whale of the season, I decided to witness the landing of the whale in order to gain my own impressions.

I drove to the remote whaling station at Hvalfjordur in time to watch the whaling vessel Hvalur 9 coming in.  It started to rain and kept on raining for the rest of the day.  I stood on the green mountain slope overlooking the whaling station, getting completely soaked, whilst watching this beautiful whale being chopped up. It felt as if Mother Nature was crying over one of her most beautiful and docile creatures.  Having to watch the second largest animal on this planet being cut up into pieces, out of some kind of misguided national pride of a single individual, was not easy.  

 As a veterinarian, I am used to seeing dead animals and even necropsy (autopsy) them myself, so it is nothing extraordinary for me. But yesterday was different. Because it was a whale, because I know that the killing method is cruel and inhumane – nothing that would pass any European animal welfare laws – and because I know how much this animal almost certainly suffered before it finally died and for what reason?  No reason at all, in my opinion.

Whales are precious and many people live out their entire lives without seeing one, let alone an endangered fin whale. A precise population count for whales is impossible: all we have are estimates – and estimates can be way off.  Of course, the estimates could be lower than the actual numbers, but with the international whaling history and the current ocean pollution and exploitation by Man, it is far more likely that numbers are well below these estimates.

Although whaling killing methods have improved somewhat over time, they are still not sophisticated enough to kill a whale humanely. Correctly stunning a whale is virtually impossible as they are fast moving animals that only surface to breathe at intervals. Whales are shot with harpoons and often struggle for their lives in agony before finally dying a slow, painful death.

Veterinarians to this day struggle to find good and appropriate euthanasia methods for whales that have stranded on land and are not able to be saved (and here access to the whale is obviously easier), so it is no wonder that no whaling method has yet been developed that may be considered completely effective or humane!

But since all these aspects have been talked about many times, in addition to animal welfare considerations, I also spent some time thinking about the practical implications of preparing whale meat for human consumption.  Whales are massive creatures and the food hygiene standards at the whaling station are minimal: certainly far from what is acceptable in European slaughterhouses, for example.  The highest standards of hygiene are required for products for human consumption, which is obviously not possible in a venture involving butchering a 70-120 ton whale on site: another reason to outlaw whaling completely and to refrain from this unnecessary practice.

Apart from being contaminated and probably highly parasitic, I would not want to eat this meat due to the lack of hygiene in the production process. The whale’s carcass is towed up the slipway and brought to rest on a outside concrete area which is constantly subjected to environmental impacts, such as bird excrements and other contamination. The ground had not been cleaned properly nor disinfected before the cutting process began.  I watched as the freshly-cut meat was pulled over the ground in huge slices, probably taking on most of the dirt that is on the ground. Whilst the process of cutting up the whale appears more or less ‘clean’ – since there is not a lot of blood running out – from a meat hygiene standpoint it really is questionable.

Nobody is wearing gloves or protective hairnets. They are hosing down the freshly cut meat with water (a practice which is condemned in slaughter houses, because water serves as a main contamination source and can even contaminate the meat on a microscopic level). But since I watched the workers actually standing inside the whale, on the meat, I guess water purity is the least problematic aspect!

I noticed that there was one disinfective footbath which some men were occasionally using, but the occasional step into it doesn’t seem like an adequate hygiene precaution when dealing with meat for human consumption. Overall, just knowing HOW this meat is being processed would already gross me out so much that I couldn’t eat it, regardless of the additional animal welfare and ethics questions. To me, it is inexplicable how meat that is processed in this way can even be allowed for human consumption?

I went to Iceland to enjoy the wonderful wildlife, the breathtaking beauty of its countryside and to go watching whales in their natural habitat – an absolutely amazing experience.  Orcas, sperm whales, fin whales, blue whales and minke whales… I just wish Kristján Loftsson would see the value these animals have to the entire country while they are alive. Whale watching is a huge tourist attraction worldwide, and while someone could argue that the boats disturb the animals, I would argue that there are responsible operators out there and that being disturbed is far less invasive than being killed. At least the whales that are watched can swim away.

Iceland could be the most wonderful country in the world, if it wasn’t for this one sad blot on its reputation: the terrible and unnecessary slaughter of these wonderful creatures.

I love the myths and legends which abound in Iceland: I believe in elfs and the hidden people, I believe that random stone pillars are trolls that turned into stone. I understand why Icelanders are so proud of their history and nationality.  It is actually one of the reasons why I love Iceland so much. Their history is so precious to them, so preserved. They still live their longstanding culture, they still speak one of the world’s oldest languages. But the attitude towards whaling in Iceland is changing and Kristján Loftsson should recognize that and hopefully act accordingly.

I believe that Kristjan Loftsson can change his business model and turn the whaling station into a museum where whaling can be regarded as a part of history, where it belongs.  Other countries have managed to turn their whaling past into a part of their history and turn instead to developing a successful economy based on whale watching.

I am closing this rather lengthy blog with the words of one of the most inspiring people this world has ever had, Jacques Yves Cousteau: ‘The real cure for our environmental problems is to understand that our job is to salvage Mother Nature. We are facing a formidable enemy in this field. It is the hunters… and to convince them to leave their guns on the wall is going to be very difficult.’ ” 

What can you do?

Support WDC’s campaign to stop the transfer of Iceland’s whale products through EU ports

About Vanessa Williams-Grey

Policy manager - Stop Whaling and Responsible Whale Watching