Irony Gets Grim: Whaler Uses Whale Oil to Fuel His Hunting Boats

Whaling tycoon Kristjan Loftsson brags about using slaughtered fin whales to create a fuel blend that’s 20 percent whale oil.

The carcass of a Fin whale is tied to a whaling ship as it anchors near a processing plant in Hvalfjordur, Iceland. (Photo: Ingolfur Juliusson/Reuters)

David Kirby has been a professional journalist for 25 years. His third book, 'Death at Seaworld,' was published in 2012.

An Icelandic whaling tycoon has sparked outrage in the cetacean advocacy community after boasting to a London newspaper that he powers his fleet of whale-hunting vessels with a mixture of “green biofuel” that includes whale oil.

Calling such fuel “green” is completely absurd, perverse and unethical.

Kristjan Loftsson, chief executive of Iceland’s Hvalur company, told the Sunday Times that he melts down blubber from slaughtered fin whales to create a blend of 80 percent diesel fuel and 20 percent whale oil. He uses the mixture to power the boats that go out and kill more fin whales. Loftsson called it the world’s “greenest” marine biofuel, according to the Times.

The process was doubly environmentally friendly, he added, because the fat on fin whale carcasses was rendered into oil using geothermal heat sourced from volcanic vents.

Each whale-hunting boat consumes the same amount of oil per day that is extracted from one dead fin whale, Loftsson claimed, saving his company hundreds of thousands of dollars each hunting season.

Fin whales, meanwhile, are classified as “endangered” and considered to be at very high risk of extinction.

Not surprisingly, whale activists were sickened by Loftsson’s attempt to make his company seem environmentally respectful, a tactic known in some circles as greenwashing.

“Calling such fuel ‘green’ is “completely absurd, perverse and unethical,” said Chris Butler-Stroud, CEO of the U.K.-based Whale and Dolphin Conservation. Although Iceland’s whaling industry “is already steeped in the blood of whales,” he said, it is “now prepared to use the remains of dead whales to keep its own vessels afloat.”

“We have known for a while that Icelandic whaling is no longer simply about feeding people,” Butler-Stroud added. “It is driven by the greed of a few individuals determined to try to make enormous amounts of money out of the practice, to the extent that they are even willing to use products from endangered whales to fuel their own ships’ engines in order to kill more whales.”

According to WDC, whaling in Iceland fell in 2011 from its 2010 peak of 148 fin whales and 60 Minke whales. Demand for fin whale meat in Japan, the world’s largest market, however, has “collapsed,” the group stated. And in Iceland, “up to 40 percent of the domestic consumption of whale meat [is] now being made up of unsuspecting tourists.”

Although the International Whaling Commission imposed a ban on commercial whaling in 1986, loopholes allowing some countries to keep killing have led to the slaughter of more than 30,000 whales, WDC said. Today the biggest whale-hunting nations, Japan, Norway and Iceland, collectively kill some 1,500 whales a year.

Loftsson’s surreal and ironic boast of using “green” whale oil to power boats designed to kill more whales only served to draw renewed attention to the wonton slaughter of endangered animals for a market that is disappearing as fast as the species itself.

The Sunday Times said the whale fuel was “new,” but it turns out that Loftsson and Hvalur have been using it since at least 2010.

Sue Fisher of Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society (now WDC) explained the state of affairs well at the time.

“It’s a very contradictory situation which sums up the bizarre state of Icelandic whaling today—falling markets, yet requests to kill more whales, provoking the wrath of EU whilst negotiating to become a member state,” Fisher said, “and then adding insult to injury by using dead whales to fuel vessels so that they can go out and hunt for more of these animals.”

Fin whalers are not the only hunters trying to use innovative, if morally questionable or even repugnant techniques to increase profitability. In August of 2010, for example, Iceland’s Minke Whalers Association launched a new “whaling watching” venture.

You read correctly—they sought to make a handy profit by taking tourists out in the sea, not to watch whales live, but to watch them die—agonizing, prolonged deaths that end in, yes, a meal.

Advertising for “whaling watching” excursions beckoned tourists with the chance to “be on a whaling vessel, see and hear them shot from our harpoon,” and afterwards, to “taste our grilled and raw whale meat.”

Most people, thankfully, want to see whales in their natural habitat, not hauled up on the deck of a slaughter ship, and definitely not as grilled medallions served on their dinner plate. Whale-watching in Iceland is spectacular (there are rich numbers of killer whales in these waters as well) and there appears to be more demand for live whales than dead ones.

“In 2009, roughly 125,000 people took a whale watch trip in Icelandic waters,” WDC noted. “These whale watchers provide significant direct revenue of more than US$4 million in direct taxes to the Icelandic economy, as well as add-on tourism expenditures such as hotel and restaurant purchases.”

Whale-watching boats, of course, present their own environmental challenges, and must be regulated and monitored so they don’t get too close to traveling pods, or disturb foraging, mating and other behaviors.

But I, for one, would rather see 100 whale-watching boats off the rugged Icelandic coast than a single whale-hunting boat. And, like many people, I strongly support the development of biofuels to reduce pollution in the air—and water.

But melting down the fat of majestic marine mammals perched on the brink of extinction—and using it as fuel to hasten their extinction—is beyond unethical. And it is, of course, anything but “green.”

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