You can add Icelandic whaling to the increasingly long list of industries disrupted by the coronavirus pandemic.
Coronavirus distancing requirements have made the processing of whale meat in Iceland “almost impossible,” said Kristjan Loftsson, chief executive of Hvalur, the largest whaling company in the country. Loftsson said that it’s impossible to maintain a distance at whaling stations, and workers need to work “very closely together” — and if one is tested positive for COVID-19, the entire station would need to be quarantined.
This would be the second year in a row that Hvalur, which hunts fin and minke whales for export to Japan, will not hunt or process whale meat. Fin whales (Balaenoptera physalus) are considered threatened but are still being hunted in Iceland and Japan.
In addition, Hvalur added that it cannot compete with Japan’s own whale meat products, which are heavily subsidized by the Japanese government.
Another Icelandic whaling company, IP-Utgerd — which mainly targeted minke whales (Balaenoptera acutorostrata) — cited financial difficulties after no-fishing zones were established around Iceland’s coast. This forces whaling ships to go farther offshore, which is more costly.
The interruption has been hailed by conservationists, though it’s important to note that this isn’t the first time the Icelandic whaling industry has been halted, only to be resumed later.
“This is indeed terrific news that for a second straight year, vulnerable fin whales will get a reprieve from Hvalur hf.’s harpoons, the sole fin whaling company,” Fabienne McLellan, co-director of international relations at Ocean Care, told Mongabay. “This said, fin whaling has been suspended in Iceland in the past, only to resume. While it looks promising that whaling in Iceland might stop for good, the temporary cessation of fin whaling must become permanent.”
Whaling in Iceland began as soon as Iceland was colonized. Early hunters in the 12th century used spear-drift hunting and this vestigial hunting continued until the late 19th century when other countries brought modern ships to Iceland and changed the whaling industry.
In recent decades, environmental pressure has been mounting against the whaling industry, culminating with a global moratorium by the International Whaling Commission in 1986. Iceland is one of only a handful of countries that object to the moratorium and maintain a whaling fleet.
Arne Feuerhahn, founder of Hard to Port, a German organization working to end whaling in Iceland, believes Hvalur may yet resume whaling in 2021.
Feuerhahn hopes that Hvalur’s whaling facility can be converted into an educational center where children could learn about whaling history without killing any more whales.
In 2018, Hvalur killed 146 fin whales, many of which were pregnant females. Hvalur was also the center of controversy when it was revealed that two of the whales were hybrids between fin whales and blue whales