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Is Iceland’s old boys’ network responsible for killing whales?

There’s much anger in Iceland following the recent decision to renew whaling quotas - a decision which could see more than two thousand fin and minke whales killed over the next five years.

Let me say right now that this was a decision that should never, ever, have been taken. Harpooning whales is cruel and unnecessary and last summer’s utterly chaotic whaling season - which saw two rare blue whale/fin whale hybrids killed alongside many pregnant fin whales - was proof, if further proof was needed, that the industry is out of control. The long-awaited review of whaling, commissioned last summer, was meant to be comprehensive, but what was tabled is widely regarded as a total dud: narrow in scope, inaccurate, accusatory and often bizarrely rambling off-topic.

Unsurprisingly then, the announcement provoked strong criticism from the whale watch and tourism communities who were furious at not being consulted and feared irreparable damage to Iceland’s reputation on the world stage. Anger came too, from activist groups, whilst hugely-popular Icelandic musicians such as Högni Egilsson and  Bubbi Morthen joined the protests.

Angry questions were asked, too, in the Althingi, Iceland’s parliament. Prime Minister, Katrin Jakobsdóttir, has - albeit belatedly - stepped into the fray, calling the report ‘inadequate’ and calling for a more comprehensive review.  The prime minister has my sympathy as she walks a difficult political tightrope, torn between angering her party - the strongly anti-whaling Left-Greens - and angering her fisheries minister, whose constitutional right it is to rubberstamp new whaling quotas.

Dissent is always best coming from within of course, but this level of opposition is unprecedented and certainly far higher than that which has greeted previous whaling quota announcements. So, how can it be that the decision to allow whaling to continue was taken, seemingly against all reason and certainly without widespread public or political support? Maybe the answer lies in a single word: cronyism - doing favours for friends.

There’s a bit of a trail here. It is no secret that Iceland’s whaling magnate, multi-millionaire Kristján Loftsson, CEO of fin whaling company Hvalur hf,  has close links with the decidedly pro-whaling Independence Party; a party which currently fields the most MPs in what is, at the best of times, a fragile coalition government.  Kristján Þór Júlíusson, the current fisheries minister, is an Independence Party MP. In 2009, he supported a dramatic increase in the whaling quotas so this latest approval of more hunting is true to form.

A fin whale is hauled up the slipway while Kristjan Loftsson (in beige trousers and blue jumper) and cronies watch
A fin whale is hauled up the slipway while Kristjan Loftsson (in beige trousers and blue jumper) and cronies watch

The Icelandic media recently revealed, too, that last May, Loftsson emailed the fisheries minister, requesting him to weaken 2009 food hygiene regulations governing the processing of whale products and specifically the stipulation that whale carcasses must be cut up indoors. In reality, his company has been flouting this regulation for years. I’ve witnessed fin whales being cut up outside on the concrete at the whaling station, with Hvalur employees walking all over the carcasses in bloody wellingtons and seabirds flying directly overhead (with the attendant contamination possibilities). Loftsson’s email hinted strongly that his whaling would not be profitable if he was obliged to follow the rules ‘... I believe it is hopeless to apply for a production license for the coming season with the regulation unchanged.’ Three months later, the fisheries minister wrote an amendment to the regulation which cancelled Hvalur’s obligation to process fin whales indoors.

a fin whale is butchered at the whaling station
I watched as this whale was cut up, with Hvalur employees walking all over the carcass in bloody wellingtons

A recent report commissioned by the Nature Conservation Association of Iceland details multiple alleged violations of animal welfare and food processing laws by Hvalur hf. commenting ‘Looking at all the evidence gathered .. it is clear that the company's operations are primitive and do not meet the [stipulated] conditions.’

Mr Loftsson is very close to another Independence Party MP, Jon Gunnarsson (father of Iceland´s last remaining minke whaler, Gunnar Bergmann Jonsson).  Iceland’s minke whaling has declined almost to a standstill and mercifully only a handful of minkes have been taken in recent years, but Loftsson is no fool and realises the merit in keeping that industry limping along, if only to circumvent the dubious honour of being Iceland’s sole whaler. Hence, over the years, he has almost certainly used Gunnarsson as his mouthpiece to raise pro-whaling comments in parliament and in return, has supported the continuance of the minke whaling.

And then, of course, we have that much heralded - but in the end miserably flawed and partisan - ‘economic review’ of whaling.  And yes, that too has a strong link to the Independence Party, in the shape of the report’s author, Oddgeir Á. Ottesen. Otteson is described as an ‘economist’ attached to the University of Iceland’s Institute of Economic Studies, but significantly, he is also an alternate Independence Party MP.

Eyebrows were further raised in the University’s direction after it also emerged that it had accepted six million ISK from Hvalur for ‘research’ only months before it hosted the whaling review.  A local media report commented dryly: ‘It is not claimed that this is a direct bribe. But such a financial relationship represents a somewhat grey area. Certainly, such practices would not have been successful in other European countries. Is it acceptable or don't we care? Should we allow stakeholders such as Hvalur hf. to buy "scientific" results stamped with the name of the University of Iceland?’

So what is WDC’s response?

Industry lobbying is commonplace the world over, of course, but when such lobbying gives the green light to killing whales, then questions must be asked of those in authority. You can be sure that we are not only supporting those working within Iceland to end whaling, but we are also urging our governments to make the strongest possible representations to their counterparts in Iceland.

Please make a donation - with your support, we will not stop until the whaling ends for good.

Fin whale
Vanessa Williams-Grey

About Vanessa Williams-Grey

Policy manager - Stop Whaling and Responsible Whale Watching

3 Comments

  1. Avatar Nigel Barber on 15th March 2019 at 8:33 am

    Whaling is a blight on Iceland’s global identity and has no place in the 21st century

  2. Avatar Anette Jäverfelt on 16th March 2019 at 1:46 pm

    Whales are not ours to take , human greed can never decide who will live or die . Shame on Iceland and other whaling countries ! They are not starving!

  3. Avatar Judith Thursby on 25th April 2019 at 8:06 pm

    Quite appalling, but as quoted vested interests often come before what could best be described as doing the right thing. Apart from fighting this problem from within Iceland itself, I would suggest that anyone living outside Iceland who might be thinking of it as a country to visit on holiday should think again, and vote with their feet by finding another country whose animal welfare is better to visit instead. I don’t know how much money Iceland makes out of tourism, but if tourists stay away from the country in their droves it should make a difference.

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