Activists say that whales will still suffer agonising deaths despite new regulations and monitoring
Animal rights groups and environmentalists have described as “hugely disappointing” the news that Iceland has given the green light for commercial whaling to resume, after a temporary ban introduced this year came to an end.
The Icelandic government said there will be tougher regulations in place – including better equipment, training and increased monitoring – but campaigners said these were “pointless and irrelevant” because whales will still suffer agonising deaths. The hunted whales are shot with grenade-tipped harpoons.
The government’s decision to allow the country’s fin whale hunt to go ahead follows advice from a working group that improvements could reduce suffering. Fin whales, the world’s second largest mammal after the blue whale, are considered globally vulnerable to extinction, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature.
In a statement to the Guardian, Iceland’s minister of food
and agriculture, Svandís Svavarsdóttir, said: “With the expiry of the ban, the ministry is now implementing strict and detailed new requirements for hunting including equipment, methods and increased supervision.
“Irrespective of my personal or political standpoint on whaling, evaluation of its future remains ongoing and the official process continues.”
She stressed that the current permit was issued in 2019, before she took office and is valid to the end of 2023, adding: “A decision on any licenses being granted in 2024 has not yet been made.”
“These new measures are pointless and irrelevant,” said Luke McMillan, an anti-whaling campaigner at Whale and Dolphin Conservation. “Training, education and better equipment or killing methods – the measures they have put in place – will never make whaling acceptable. There is no humane way to kill whales at sea and they will still suffer.
“This decision is hugely disappointing and a massive step backwards.”
The groups stressed that whales already face myriad threats, including pollution, entanglement in fishing nets, ship strikes and the climate crisis.
Ruud Tombrock, the European director of the Humane Society International, said: “It is inexplicable that minister Svavarsdóttir has dismissed the unequivocal scientific evidence that she herself commissioned, demonstrating the brutality and cruelty of commercial whale killing. There is simply no way to make harpooning whales at sea anything other than cruel and bloody, and no amount of modifications will change that.
“With the need for whale protection so critical, this is a devastating rejection of a once-in-a-generation opportunity to end the slaughter at sea. There is a new shameful entry in the conservation history books – Iceland had a chance to do the right thing and it chose not to.”
Some conservationists are worried that Thursday’s decision will put the longer-term phasing-out of whaling into question. A decision about Iceland’s whaling quota for the next several years is expected at the end of 2023.
The country has only one remaining whaling company, Hvalur. Its five-year licence to hunt fin whales expires in December.
However, others see the decision as a “step forward” towards ending the industry in Iceland. They say are confident that the new conditions will not be met and hope that the Icelandic government will stop issuing licences for whaling once Hvalur’s permit runs out.
Patrick Ramage, of the International Fund for Animal Welfare, said: “This is a regrettable but required step towards a permanent end to Icelandic whaling. The fisheries minister must now decide whether this cruel slaughter will be allowed to continue beyond this year. All signs are that she is putting an orderly end to this bloody business. It is not possible to demonstrate cruelty-free whaling.”
In June, Svavarsdóttir suspended whaling until 31 August after a government-commissioned report concluded that the hunt does not comply with Iceland’s animal welfare legislation. “If the government and licensees cannot guarantee welfare requirements, these activities do not have a future,” Svavarsdóttir said at the time. She said last year that the country planned to end whaling from 2024 as demand dwindled.
The report on the country’s fin whale hunt, by the Icelandic food and veterinary authority in May, found the killing of the animals took too long. Some took two hours to die after being harpooned. The agency questioned whether hunting large whales could meet animal welfare objectives. After the suspension of the hunt, an expert working group, comprising the ministry of food, the national food agency and the Norwegian fisheries agency, was set up in July to examine whether it was possible to modify the whale hunt to reduce animal suffering.
A few days ago, it concluded there were grounds for making changes to the hunting methods used, to improve animal welfare.
Iceland, Norway and Japan are the only countries that have continued whale hunting despite fierce criticism from environmentalists and animal rights’ defenders.
Support for whaling in Iceland has dropped dramatically. A survey published in June indicated that 51% of Icelanders were opposed to the hunt and 29% in favour, with the over-60s most in favour.
Last year in Iceland, 148 fin whales were killed. The hunting of 58 whales was filmed and analysed by experts on behalf of the food and veterinary authority. It showed that, of the 36 whales shot more than once, five whales were shot three times and four whales were shot four times. One whale with a harpoon in its back was chased for five hours.