Iceland is killing endangered whales – how do they get away with it?

Jul 10, 2015 by afdadmin
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Icelandic whalers cut open an endangered fin whale in 2009. Photograph: HALLDOR KOLBEINS/AFP/Getty Images

Icelandic whalers cut open an endangered fin whale.   Photo credit: HALLDOR KOLBEINS/AFP/Getty Images

On Sunday 28th June, whaling ships left port near Reykjavik, Iceland, to claim their annual quota of 154 whales. Sadly, the first whale of the season was killed on the 1st July.

Iceland is one of the few countries (along with Norway) that openly defy the 1986 ban on commercial whaling. While Japan was recently found to be in breach of the International Whaling Commission (‘IWC’) moratorium, it does not conduct whaling openly but instead under a scientific research loophole.

Despite most people defining the term conservation as guarding or protecting a species, whaling nations like Iceland often state that they “take a conservationist approach to whaling”. The Icelandic government further states that common minke whales and fin whales are in “abundance” and argue that there is no issue in terms of sustainability because these “natural resources” should be utilised.

A hunted fin whale is tied to a whaling ship as it anchors near a processing plant in Hvalfjordur, Iceland. Reuters

A hunted fin whale is tied to a whaling ship in Hvalfjordur, Iceland.    Photo credit: Reuters

But recent data suggests that whale populations are still depleted. Even though the IWC ban has helped to restore whale populations, thousands of whales have been killed since it was first introduced. Since 1985, Japan has killed 20,162 whales, Norway has killed 10,859 and Iceland 1,138. Even though it’s clear that whale populations still haven’t recovered from exploitation, some nations have called for the ban on commercial whaling to be lifted entirely.

The IWC states that fin whale populations may have recovered slightly since the ban was put in place, but “there is no evidence that they have recovered to anywhere near unexploited levels”.

Similarly, while the minke whale population has improved, there is not enough data to make a firm conclusion about their status in the western North Pacific.

So why is Iceland still allowed to continue whaling? Iceland left the IWC in 1992 but later re-joined, citing a “reservation” to the moratorium. While this reservation is contested by other member states, it basically allows Iceland to continue whaling despite the ban.

In conducting “scientific” whaling, Japan goes beyond its own territorial and economic boundaries, whereas other whaling nations like Iceland only whale within their exclusive economic zones. This is primarily why Australia was able to challenge Japan’s whaling program – because it took place in the Southern Ocean Whale Sanctuary in Australian waters. In comparison, Iceland conducts whaling within its own waters, making a challenge in the International Court of Justice unlikely.

There are 89 member states that make up the IWC. Those few countries that continue whaling, either under an objection, reservation or under the guise of science, issue their own permits. While these nations do have to submit catch limits and data to the IWC, this effectively means that countries police their own whaling activities, which is obviously not the most objective system.

A humpback whale dives next to an Icelandic whale watching vessel.

A humpback whale next to an Icelandic whale watching vessel.

It’s important to remember that the IWC was initially set up “to provide for the proper conservation of whale stocks and thus make possible the orderly development of the whaling industry”.

However, whales should not be viewed as mere resources, a stock or supply that we can draw on and use as we please. Science points to the fact that whales are highly intelligent, emotional and social mammals.

While Japan’s exploitation of the IWC’s research loophole and Iceland’s “reservation” to the ban is pretty murky, there’s no disguising the fact that whale populations are at a critically low level. With anthropogenic threats such as pollution, shipping and development ever increasing, the need for the ban to remain in place is crystal clear. Not only that, but countries such as Australia should be putting more pressure on the IWC to ensure that nations don’t abuse the rules of the Convention.  Otherwise we may just find that in years to come, there won’t be any “stock” left to conserve.