Howling 40 knot winds from the northeast and 7 foot seas greet us the following morning. Spotting minke whales in these conditions would be nearly impossible, and attempting to deploy the tag from the RHIB would be downright dangerous. We review the maritime forecast with an Elding captain and learn that conditions are only expected to worsen. The weather promises to keep us landlocked for the next few days.
While we wait for the winds to die and the seas to calm, we review the politics and the economics of whales in Iceland. Iceland represents an interesting intersection of whaling and tourism: it is literally the front lines between those whose livelihoods depend on live whales, and the few that profit from dead ones.
Whaling is an extremely delicate issue well deserving of international controversy. It’s an inherently emotional conflict between national autonomy and the welfare of one of the world’s most majestic, beloved creatures. Hunting whales invokes elements of culture, independence, empathy, and compassion, and it often leads to heated debates. Wherever you stand on whaling, you’re likely passionate about your opinion.
Whaling in the North Atlantic dates back to the 12th century, where whales were hunted with spears and harvested primarily for their blubber. Following the International Whaling Commission's moratorium on whaling in 1986 and languishing demand for whale meat, Iceland banned the practice in 1989. In 2003, Iceland began scientific whaling, killing 200 whales in four years. Despite international protest, commercial whaling resumed in 2007 and continues today.
Iceland is currently one of only 3 countries that permits commercial whaling within its waters. Fisheries regulations allow for the hunting of both minke and fin whales. In 2015, the quota was set at 154 fin whales and 229 minkes.
Only two companies are currently licensed to hunt in Iceland. Kristian Loftsson hunts fin whales offshore from his fleet of five fast steam powered boats and exports all of the meat to Japan. Loftsson is a fishing magnate, owning a percentage of the fishing giant HP Grandi. On our way back from tagging one day, we pass one of his boats steaming into the bay past whale watching boats filled with tourists. A bloody adult male fin whale is lashed to its side, its baleen quivering in the wake of the steely gray water.
Gunnar Bergmann is the only man licensed to hunt minke whales in Iceland. He agrees to an interview, so we pack our gear and head to his office in Hafnarfjörður. The office is part of the whale processing facility, and we’re immediately struck by the decidedly sour smell. He’s just returned from a hunt and is visibly exhausted. “We caught only one minke,” he says, sipping his coffee and checking his cell phone as he gestures for us to take a seat.
Over the next hour, we discuss whaling with one of the few remaining commercial whalers on the planet. “It’s just like any other fishery,” he says. “We’re trying to increase demand for the meat.” The whales are shot with grenade tipped harpoons and butchered at sea, and the head, bones, and fluke are discarded overboard. He tells us that he understands why whaling is a controversial practice, but that to him, it’s just business.
It may be just business, but it doesn't seem to be particularly good business; tourism is undeniably far more profitable. In 2014, 118,000 whale watchers departed from Reykjavik to see whales in Faxafloi Bay, resulting in over $7 million in revenue from whale watching ticket sales alone. Bergmann hunts the same minke whales in the same bay, earning only approximately $7,550 for each whale: roughly the amount of income generated from a single whale-watching trip.
The effect these animals have on people is palpable. One afternoon, we meet a group of elated tourists who watched in awe as a baby humpback breached directly in front of their boat. Some are moved to tears.
Whales are also a feature attraction on many downtown Reykjavik menus. We see whale tapas, whale burgers, whale tataki, and whale sashimi. “It tastes a lot like steak,” one chef tells us. Surprisingly, we find that whale is often one of the cheapest items on the menu—at one upscale restaurant, a minke whale entrée is roughly the same price as a small piece of chocolate cake.
We interview Stefan Ulfarsson, the owner and lead chef of 3 Frakkar, a high-end restaurant in central Reykjavik that specializes in exotic food, and offers fin whale as a featured course on its menu. “Some tourists go whale watching and then come here because they want to taste the whale,” he tells us. “They want to know what it’s like.”
We’re surprised to learn that the consumers of domestic whale meat are largely not Icelanders, but tourists. According to a Gallop poll, only 3-5% of locals eat whale regularly. Instead, whale meat is marketed to tourists as an essential part of experiencing true Icelandic culture.
We’re struck by the fact that the numbers don’t add up, and no economic justification for whaling seems to exist. Hunting whales is expensive, yet whale meat is extremely cheap, demand is low, and tourists seem to be the only ones supporting this industry.