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Iceland’s whale ally faces a political storm

Luke McMillan

Luke McMillan

Luke is WDC's head of hunting and captivity.

Last summer, Iceland’s Fisheries Minister Svandís Svavarsdóttir took the bold decision to delay the start of the whaling season, saving the lives of around 120 endangered fin whales. Since then, she has been the ‘talk of the town’ in Iceland, but we’re concerned that events unfolding tomorrow will threaten the position of our important ally and the future of whales in Icelandic waters.

Let me explain …

Minister Svavarsdóttir courageously suspended the hunts after a Food and Veterinary Authority report, which she commissioned, exposed the inhumane methods employed in whale hunts in 2022, with some whales taking up to two hours to die after being shot with grenade-tipped harpoons. By pausing whaling, she not only made a political move as whaling breached Icelandic Animal Welfare Law, but she also cast a vote for the ocean and the lives it holds.

The shortened hunts season ended with a final total of 23 whales killed, 1 unborn calf killed and 1 whale lost.
The shortened hunts season ended with a final total of 23 whales killed, 1 unborn calf killed and 1 whale lost.

Doesn’t everyone approve?

In July 2023, following the minister’s decision, an independent official appointed to investigate complaints made about the government, known as the ombudsman, requested information, explanations, and documentation regarding this suspension to determine whether it was in line with Icelandic law. They released their report recently and it has stirred up quite a storm within the Althing - the national parliament of Iceland. In the ombudsman’s opinion, the postponement was not sufficiently in line with the country’s Act on Whaling.

3 fin whales

Can you help to stop whaling in Iceland?

But there is positive news. The ombudsman supported the animal welfare considerations involved in Svandís’s decision, and highlighted that the current legislation governing whaling neglects animal welfare due to its outdated nature. This acknowledgement is crucial as all of us working to protect whales have been waiting for confirmation, by an impartial party, that welfare should be considered when making decisions about whaling.

No whale should suffer like this ©  Hard to Port
No whale should suffer like this © Hard to Port

So, what’s the issue?

Unfortunately, some significant repercussions are unfolding. The majority of Icelanders now sit firmly in the anti-whaling camp, and I saw this firsthand in Iceland’s capital city, Reykjavik when I joined a demonstration to end the hunts. But surprisingly, in a recent poll, the majority of the population expressed dissatisfaction with Minister Svavarsdóttir’s decisions on whaling.

Luke with activists
WDC standing in solidarity with Icelandic anti-whalers in Reykjavik
Please stop killing whales

I stood shoulder to shoulder with the anti-whaling community in Reykjavik.

It’s important to realise it’s more than just a decision to protect whales. Let me break down the political situation in Iceland for you …

Iceland is currently run by a coalition government led by Katrín Jakobsdóttir of the Left-Green Movement (Svandís Svavarsdóttir’s party), alongside the Independence Party and the Progressive Party. Each party has its own priorities. The Left-Green Movement focuses on social justice, environmental sustainability and welfare policies;  the Independence Party on free-market policies and economic liberalism; and the Progressive Party on rural and agricultural issues, as well as social welfare. With these differences, they’re struggling to agree on how to run the country, especially when it comes to whaling. This was evident last year when the suspension came into force, causing a divide among ministers, some supporting the whalers over the whales.

3 people each with a different priority above their head. The environment, money , the economy
Too many cooks spoil the broth.

Since the ombudsman’s report, opposition parties from outside the coalition are calling for Svandís to resign, with the belief that she broke the law. Sigmundur Davíð Gunnlaugsson, the chairman of the Centre Party, has said his party will submit a no-confidence motion to Svandís Svavarsdóttir as soon as the Althing meets tomorrow, 22 January, and Inga Sæland, the leader of the People's Party, supports it. However, the prime minister disagrees, saying there’s no reason for the minister of food to resign.

Icelanding Parliament building.
The Parliament House in Reykjavik, Iceland. © Malcolm Holloway

What’s the REAL issue? 

Now, here’s the interesting part. The dispute isn’t just about whaling; it goes beyond that. The Independence Party, part of the coalition, thinks there’s a bigger issue with Svandís’s general approach. In a nutshell, they want to prevent what they think will be potential unrest among the Icelandic people. This likely stems from Svandís's proposed changes across fisheries and aquaculture (fish farming). Considering the traditional Icelandic stance favouring major fishing and aquaculture companies, this might be the main reason that parties are calling for her resignation.

A worry for whales

This situation is deeply concerning. Minister Svavarsdóttir has been such an ally to the anti-whaling cause, not just because of the decision she made in the summer of 2023, but because of the research she commissioned into the animal welfare issues during the hunts. She gave whales a voice. She is led by the evidence. She puts the wellbeing of whales ahead of the economy and ahead of playing political games. Losing her would be a travesty and a massive setback.

Fin whale head
On behalf of the fin whales, thank you Svandís.

Oh, and whilst all of this is going on, the familiar villain of the piece, Kristján Loftsson, managing director of the last remaining whaling company, Hvalur hf. says he intends to seek compensation for the ‘damage’ caused by Svandís Svavarsdóttir's decision. However, I think this might pose a risk for Mr Loftsson, as he will have to reveal how much money comes into the economy from whaling, and indications suggest that whaling has actually been running at a loss for many years now.

Icelandic hunting vessels in port
The last whaling company in Iceland has yet to apply for a new whaling licence since their previous licence expired at the end of 2023.

As I wrap this up on the evening before the no-confidence motion against Minister Svavarsdóttir is to be submitted, I urge you to take a moment to think about the bigger picture; support those who choose compassion over tradition and who prioritise our planet over outdated practices. The world is watching Iceland, and the decisions made in the coming weeks will resonate far beyond your borders, we will keep you updated. Minister Svandís Svavarsdóttir, we stand by you.

Update

In a very sad turn of events, Minister Svavarsdóttir announced  that she has been diagnosed with breast cancer. On behalf of everyone at WDC, we extend our heartfelt well wishes and support to Svandís Svavarsdóttir.

Since hearing this challenging news, the opposing parties have withdrawn the no-confidence motion against Svandís and Prime Minister Katrín Jakobsdóttir has announced her plans to temporarily take over the Ministry of Food. 

The Prime Minister, Jakobsdóttir, has performed her first important task as the acting Fisheries Minister. She has created a team to put together a report about whaling policies. This report will look at ongoing whale hunting and also think about whether there should be rules to limit or stop future hunting. The goal is to use this report to help make decisions about whale hunting laws in the future. 

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About Luke McMillan

Luke is WDC's Head of hunting and captivity.