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Rich pickings or death throes? Lines from Iceland – Part 1

I stood last Friday on a rain-sodden hillside in Iceland, alongside Astrid, a whaling campaign colleague based in our Munich office – and felt a sickening lurch of déjà vu.  Last July, we had stood on this exact same spot, watching this grimmest of grim spectacles unfold just metres away behind the chain link fence of the whaling station compound.

Even worse this time, it looked like a three-whale day, maybe even four.  Kristjan Loftsson’s men don’t exactly hang around: by the time we reached the fin whaling station, at remote Hvalfjordur, north of Reykjavik, both of his fin whaling vessels, the Hvalur 8 and 9, were moored in the harbour and the site was a hive of activity.  Dozens of yellow and beige plastic tubs had been filled with whale meat and were now being loaded onto a waiting Eimskip truck.

Given the ruthless efficiency of the workers, it was more than possible that a lot of meat had already been trucked away that morning. The remains of at least one whale lay on the concrete, its massive body decimated by the flensing irons; meat and baleen piled in heaps around the site.  Nothing, I thought, can ever restore the grace and beauty of these quiet, dead whales; reduced now to a grotesque pile of body parts. Still another whale bobbed in the water at the bottom of the slipway, seabirds pecking lazily at its carcass.  I wondered how much they had suffered and struggled before succumbing.

One of the Eimskip trucks pulled out of the site just before us, hurtling along the remote road towards Reykjavik at breakneck speed and was soon out of sight. However, we caught up as the truck laboured up a steep hill, a sickening trickle of pinkish water slopping out of the tailgate each time it rounded a corner.  The vehicle abruptly turned off at the Reykjavik city boundary, clearly heading towards the Hvalur frozen storage facility at nearby Hafnafjordur (regular blog followers might recognize this as the port from which the Alma set off with her cargo of 2,000 tonnes of fin whale meat earlier this year).

Both whaling boats returned almost immediately to sea, making a beeline for the waters off Grindavik to the south, clearly rich pickings for fin whales.

The following day, we visited Hafnafjordur to check out the Hvalur plant, curious to see how much activity there might be, given the amount of fin whale meat that would need to be put into cold storage this weekend alone.  The building is unremarkable, unmarked and featureless – so much so that tourists passing only metres away aboard the Flybus shuttle from Keflavik airport would have no clue as to its purpose.

The chill cabinets in the nearby Kronan supermarket offered various barbequed and peppered minke whale dishes, all processed in the town; along with vacuum-packed fin whale blubber, selling for 3,500 Icelandic kronar a kilo (about £18).  It looked highly unappetizing, but an elderly lady told us that she purchased the blubber fairly regularly, serving it up in small chunks as a delicacy for visitors, rather in the way we might put out bowls of crisps and peanuts. Interestingly, the blubber bore the same distribution address at Hafnafjordur as the minke whale meat: another indication of collaboration between the fin and minke whalers. Fin whales are endangered and it struck us that tourists from Europe, the US and elsewhere might be tempted to purchase packs to sample whilst on holiday – or worse, try to take some home, maybe unaware that doing so would be illegal in most countries.

In the harbour, we spotted the Hafsteinn – a  minke whaling vessel active earlier in the season but now looking decidedly neglected, its harpoon gun mount removed.  As we left Hafnafjordur to return to Reykjavik, we spotted yesterday’s Eimskip truck, rapidly unloading yet more tubs of fin whale meat at the Hvalur storage plant: caught up in a seemingly endless cycle.

I reflected on what we had witnessed, my previous despondency replaced by anger and disgust. Endangered fin whales are being pulled out of the water hand over fist yet, given the already massive frozen stockpiles in Japan, these beautiful creatures are mere pawns in a grotesque game of ‘Don’t tell me what to do!’ on the part of lone fin whaler, Kristjan Loftsson.  And, whilst there is some domestic demand for minke whale meat – shamefully, this comes largely from tourists, unaware that Icelanders themselves rarely eat whale meat – the minke whalers appear unable to run a profitable business, instead chalking up huge financial losses and flirting with bankruptcy as companies and vessels change hands overnight or else are run into the ground.

Whilst the whaling has somehow endured, way beyond reason, there are signs that we are witnessing the death throes of this industry in Iceland.  In the second part of my blog, I will explain why I have a strong feeling of optimism that WDC, working with many individuals, organizations and governments within Iceland and around the world, can help bring an end to a business that should have been relegated to the history books a long time ago.  

How you can help

Please add your name and support our campaign to stop the transfer of whale products through EU ports.

About Vanessa Williams-Grey

Policy manager - Stop Whaling and Responsible Whale Watching