In Iceland, a bloody tradition resumes

A fin whale being flensed at the Hvalfjörður whaling station in Iceland (Wikimedia Commons)

The two harpoon boats left the port under cover of darkness, slipped away from Reykjavik’s harbor, and churned west into the frigid North Atlantic.  Hvalur 8 and Hvalur 9 are old pros at sea; the former was built in 1948, the latter in 1952.  Through decades of service, the twin vessels have been sturdy, if unaesthetic, stalwarts of one of Iceland’s most controversial maritime traditions: hunting the endangered finback whale.  This past Sunday, the chase resumed after a two-year hiatus.  By late Wednesday, each ship had made its first kill.  Over the next several months, up to 178 more whales are eligible to be taken, the majority of which will be sold to Japan to fuel that country’s burgeoning market for luxury dog food.

Fin whales, identifiable by their large dorsal ridges, grow over 60 feet long and can weigh as much 75 tons (roughly equivalent to 52 VW Beetles) making them the second-largest mammal on earth trailing only the blue whale.

Iceland’s hunt takes place in open defiance of the United States, the European Union, and the International Whaling Commission (not to mention Greenpeace and its Zodiac skiffs).  But this is only the latest chapter in an old story.  Since the 1980s, Iceland and Japan have systematically distanced themselves from the binding parameters of global cetacean protection organizations and now ignore all attempts to reign in their whaling quotas.  A 1986 global moratorium on whale trafficking did not deter the practice, nor did repeated wrist slaps from the E.U. (of which Iceland is not a member) and threats of economic sanctions from President Obama in 2011. With the world allied almost unanimously against it, Iceland soldiers on.  Whaling guru Kristjan Loftsson, the owner of Hvalur 8 and Hvalur 9, is certainly not shy about saying exactly what he thinks of all the controversy.

What makes Iceland’s stubbornness surprising is that the country is an otherwise scientifically minded exemplar of what we could broadly term Liberal Western Values.™  It is culturally progressive (having been one of the first nations to legalize gay marriage), economically liberal (possessing one of the strongest social safety nets in the world) and environmentally advanced, ranking first in clean air regulations and pollution control while effectively harnessing its own renewable geothermal energy.  Is it any wonder then why Icelanders are, by and large, happy?

But when it comes to whaling (which, despite superficial feints, has never been about research), traditionalism runs deep beneath the surface.  Beginning as early as the 12th century, Viking descendants hunted cetaceans for blubber and oil and the practice evolved more or less continuously into the twentieth century.  As the modern conservation movement took shape in the late 1960s and whales became a totemic emblem in the global fight against extinction, Iceland bristled at the attempts of outside nations (especially the U.S.) to dictate its policies, whether or not they were scientifically justified.  In a fascinating sociological analysis written all the way back in 1991, Anne Brydon digs in to the ways that whaling and national pride grew intertwined in a way that became unshakeable.  The key passage:

The dominant argument has become, Icelanders have the right to define what they can and cannot hunt in their territorial waters.  This identification of the nation of Icelanders with the practice of whaling creates the possibility for Icelandic anti-whalers to be labelled traitors, as indeed several were.  Thus, the whaling issue…created a boundary across which they developed their sense of identity in the world.


The fact that the anti-whaling movement originated abroad was also significant in its demise.  I am not arguing that all foreign ideas are rejected; obviously this is not the case.  But given the strong emphasis on independence and the importance of “Icelanders doing it themselves,” the identity of the carrier of a particular discourse can be considered significant.

Brydon’s lengthy piece is worth a look, for it goes a long way toward explaining why whaling persists despite the fact that the practice is not a huge driver in Iceland’s economy (raw aluminum accounts for the highest share), nor does whale meat end up on a lot of dinner tables (tourists, on the other hand…).  Even in the pre-2008 boom years, when Reykjavik was becoming a fashionable playground for European investment and the island was moving away from a fishing-based economy toward a bank-driven powerhouse, support for the rustic tradition of commercial whale hunting stayed high nevertheless.  It has become a point of national honor, one impervious to every stick and carrot extended by the global community thus far.

The business of whaling is many things — gory, cynical, and very possibly unethical — but it has never been able to be completely dismissed from a purely practical standpoint (the NYT’s Andrew Revkin wrote about the thorny scientific quandaries and limitations surrounding whale conservation efforts here).  Fortunately, there are an estimated 40,000 fin whales in the North Atlantic, a population unlikely to crash based on one rogue nation hunting fewer than 200 across a small region.  But the real danger here is that Iceland, in restarting its hunt yet again, has grown so protective of a long-held tradition that its politicians will continue to reject the consensus of the global conservation community regardless of future developments.  And that is a cautionary tale for us all.

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