(Photo: Halldor Kolbeins/Getty Images)

Why Is the World Ignoring Iceland's Growing Slaughter of Endangered Whales?

A new report urges consumers to stop buying seafood from Icelandic companies linked to whale hunts.
Sep 10, 2014· 2 MIN READ
David Kirby has been a professional journalist for 25 years. His third book, Death at Seaworld, was published in 2012.

While the world’s attention focuses on Japan’s annual dolphin-killing season under way in Taiji, Iceland has been quietly escalating the hunting of endangered fin whales.

But no one seems to be paying much attention, according to a report released Wednesday on the eve of the annual meeting of the International Whaling Commission (IWC), which enforces an international ban on the commercial hunting of whales.

“Iceland’s escalating whale hunts are clear and willful abuses of the IWC’s moratorium as well as the ban on international commercial trade in whale products,” states the report issued by the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA), the Animal Welfare Institute (AWI) and the Whale and Dolphin Conservation (WDC).

The hunting and export of fin and minke whales in Iceland is strongly opposed by the international community, the report said. “Dozens of governments have agreed to several strongly worded diplomatic protests (démarches) against Iceland since it resumed whaling in 2003.”

But harsh words alone are simply not enough to halt the hunting.

Since 2006, the Icelandic whaling company Hvalur hf has killed more than 500 fin whales for export to Japan, earning an estimated $50 million. The company’s executive director, Kristján Loftsson, maintained a whaling fleet even as most other whaling nations agreed to abide by the IWC moratorium. To facilitate exports, he partnered with Icelandic fishing giant HB Grandi, where he serves as chairman of the board.

“The impetus for the report was the massive escalation in the hunting and international trade in endangered fin whale products from Iceland to Japan,” Clare Perry, an EIA senior campaigner, said in an email. “This is really the biggest abuse of the IWC’s moratorium, a measure that saved the whales from certain extinction, and to date the IWC has failed to even make a statement about Iceland’s whaling.”

So what can be done?

More diplomatic pressure, for one. Iceland has considered joining the European Union, which forbids members from engaging in whaling.

Although the EU has passed laws to sanction non-member countries for fisheries violations, they do not apply to the whale trade.

Sue Fisher, a consultant to AWI, said countries that are members of the World Trade Organization are limited in what they can do to punish Iceland. “A nation that is a member of the World Trade Organization cannot unilaterally take punitive trade action against another nation unless it can justify the action within specific WTO exemptions,” she said in an email.

Such diplomatic niceties, of course, do not bind ordinary citizens.

“Consumer pressure is extremely important,” Vanessa Williams-Grey, head of WDC’s whaling program, said in an email. “A July 2014 survey of adults in the UK and Germany [found] that consumers are extremely concerned about links between seafood purchases and fin whaling.”More than four out of five respondents said they were unlikely to buy seafood from companies linked to whaling; among women the opposition rose to 90 percent.

“We are very clear though, that we are absolutely not calling for a general boycott of Icelandic products, but rather raising consumer awareness of the strong links between seafood supplied by one of Iceland's largest fishing companies, HB Grandi, and notorious fin whaling company, Hvalur hf,” Williams-Grey said.

So far this season, Iceland has killed at least 100 fin whales, according to the environmental groups. “We hope that by raising consumer awareness of this link, we can harness 'people power' as we call upon major retailers not to source from HB Grandi,” Williams-Grey said.

Which begs the question: Do you know where your fish comes from, and are you inadvertently supporting the illegal hunting of a majestic, endangered marine mammal?