On July 8th, under the light of an Icelandic summer’s night, the Icelandic whaling company Hvalur hf landed what is now believed by experts in the field to be a blue whale.
Iceland’s modern whaling industry began with Norwegian operations established on its shores in the late 19th century, and it remains one of the few that continues today in defiance of the International Whaling Commission’s 1986 ban on commercial hunts. Like in other major modern whaling nations, Icelandic whalers hunt the minke whale, but in recent years it has been their fin whale hunt that has drawn the most attention and controversy. The second largest animal known to have lived on earth, the fin whale was a major target of the modern whaling period, pursued for the oil which in many ways came to fuel the industrialised world. Though Icelandic whalers are still using ships from the mid-20th century, they now hunt the whales for their meat. In the case of the fin whale hunt in iceland, most of this meat is intended for export to Japan due to a limited domestic market. Japanese food safety restrictions, along with the fact that they have little use even for the meat they hunt themselves, have caused this to become something of a difficult endeavour. Tax records indicate, in fact, that it has been a long time since Hvalur hf has turned any kind of a profit. This year has marked a change, however. After a two-year hiatus from the hunt the season re-opened with a quota of 161 fin whales, plus an additional 30 of “unused quota” from the previous season. This time, the hope is to use whales to make products like protein powders and other food supplements which already have perfectly sustainable sources. Previous attempts by Hvalur hf to market whale products have included beer flavoured with smoked whale testicles, amongst other things.
The hunting of endangered fin whales has in itself been extremely controversial and drawn plenty of negative press attention, but the landing of this most recent unusual catch appears to have crossed a new line in the eyes of conservationists and others alike. Blue whales carry a significance like no other as likely the largest creatures ever to have lived. Due to this size, they were the most sought after target of whalers hunting for oil in the 20th century, being brought to the brink of extinction in what was quite possibly the greatest act of environmental destruction in human history. Though many populations are recovering, there is no doubt that these animals are still exceptionally vulnerable. For this reason, it has been forty years since the last time a blue whale was intentionally hunted in Iceland.
This particular incident potentially has more to it than the taking of a blue whale though. One unusual possibility that has been suggested since this recent animal was first documented was that it might be the hybrid offspring of a fin whale and a blue whale (they have been recorded in Iceland, amongst other places, in the past though rarely). Indeed, the whalers themselves are now claiming this to be the case. Kristján Loftsson, the managing director of Hvalur hf and one of Iceland’s wealthiest fishing magnates, claims that his company would never knowingly take a blue whale because ”it’s so distinct that you leave it alone”. Looking at this animal, however, it is clear that the features most visible to observers at sea (the colouration, dorsal fin, and overall size) clearly indicate nothing but a blue whale.
Ultimately, the taking of this animal shows that either their harpooners do not entirely know what they’re looking for, which seems unlikely, or that they knowingly shot an animal that they could see looked entirely like a blue whale. If they truly believe it was an accident, as is now effectively being claimed, are they going to start talking about by-catch of other species as something accounted for in their policies, or will they continue, as is most likely, to indicate to the world that they really have no regard for conservation and sustainability? Ultimately the question that needs to be asked – particularly in a nation where whale watching is a key part of a substantial ecotourism industry – is, what is the value of this hunt to anyone?