A historical perspective of Iceland’s whaling

In June 2022 Iceland resumed commercial whaling after halt of four years. Two whaling ships owned by Hvalur  hf. (Whale Ltd) – left Reykjavík harbour. 100 days later, the whaling vessels had caught 148 fin whales. Kristján Loftsson, CEO of Hvalur hf. was quoted saying that the whaling season had gone well and the company would
resume whaling in 2023. There had been abundance of whales south and south-west of Iceland. The whale hunting quota issued by Iceland’s Marine Research Institute was 161 fin whales. The whaling season ended in September. As early as the 12th century, Icelanders hunted whales with spears from open boats. Whales would be harpooned and drift ashore. Farmlands situated on isolated fjords in the Westfjords of Northern Iceland  and Reykjanes in the Southwest were sought after because of whale and timber drifting ashore. The Basques started
commercial whaling in Iceland after retreating from Newfoundland towards the end of the 16th century. The Basques built whaling stations in the early 1600s; the best known being at Strákatangar (Boys’ cove) at Strandir in the east Westfjords, where tobacco pipes have been excavated. The whalers would sell tobacco and other goods to the locals and buy fish, sheep and wool garments.

The murder of the Basques
During the infamous Monopolistic Trade Period between1603-1787, Danes banned ‘foreigners’ as their colonizing grip on the Icelanders tightened. At the Althing 1615, King Christian IV’s letter was read, banning all foreign whaling off the coast of Iceland. That summer, three Basque whaling vessels were stationed at Strandir in eastern Westfjords, where whale oil was processed. The Basques prepared to leave for their homeland in September,  1615. A severe storm hit the vessels and they ran aground. Eighty- three seamen survived, three drowned. The shipwrecked Basques rowed north by Hornstrandir to Ísafjarðardjúp in their small boats, as they had been told that an old sailing ship might take them to their homes. They divided into several groups, one with seventeen sailors staying at Æðey Ísafjarðardjúp (Æder Island), where five of them were killed by locals. Others sailed further to Leirufjörður and fifty-one took over the sailing ship to take them home. The conditions were harsh and, in order to survive, the Basques committed robberies. The locals sought them out and in total, thirty-one Basques was killed. It is believed that the rest escaped by boarding a British vessel, returning home in the year 1616.

The Norwegians arrive
In the late 19th century, the Norwegians arrived and founded whaling companies, operating fourteen whaling stations on the east and west coasts producing much sought-after whale oil. The first Icelandic Company was established in 1897 but went bankrupt 15 years later. However local Reykjavik sentiments towards the Norwegians were mixed. In 1913, a total ban on whaling was enacted to preserve whale stocks for Icelandic interests, due to a perceived Norwegian threat. In 1935 a law declared that whales in Icelandic territorial waters
could only be hunted by Icelanders.

Icelanders take over
In 1948 the Icelandic Hvalur hf. (Whale Ltd) purchased the American naval base at Hvalfjörður (Whale Fjord) – north of Reykjavík and converted it into a whaling station. Hvalfjörður had played a crucial part in the Battle of the Atlantic during World War II. Into the early 1950s, Norwegian crews were involved in training Icelandic whalers. In 1949, the International Whaling Commision – IWC– was established, publishing guidelines for the international regulation of whaling. Iceland was a member of the IWC from the outset. In 1982, the IWC voted in favour of a moratorium on commercial whaling to come into force in 1986. Under pressure from US, Iceland did not object to the ban. However, Iceland submitted proposals to continue whaling for research purposes to be funded by selling whale meat to Japan. The proposal was rejected by the IWC scientific committee. As Iceland continued whaling, international pressure grew. The conservation group Greenpeace sent their ship, The Rainbow Warrior in protest as did the militant Sea Shepherd Conservation Society. In 1986, the Sea Shepherd group sabotaged the whaling station at Hvalfjörður and sank two whaling boats in Reykjavík harbour. Sanctions followed as international pressure grew. Iceland left the IWC in 1992 but later made unsuccessful attempts to re-join. In 2003, Iceland proposed to resume research whaling after a 14-year break. Over the next four years Iceland caught minke whales and issued licences for commercial whaling. The struggle continued with protests from USA, UK, France, Germany, Finland, Sweden, Australia and Brazil. The country was at odds with its allies. Iceland returned to commercial whaling in 2013 but stopped in 2020, during the Covid pandemic. Iceland has now resumed whaling and so the struggle continues. However, resistance grows from within.

Coming to an end?
Early in 2022, Minister of Fisheries Svandís Svavarsdóttir stated in Morgunblaðið that there is ‘little reason’ to permit whaling after the current licence expires in 2023. She claims that whaling is economically of little value and the negative impact is considerable. The government plans to carry out an assessment on the potential
economic and social impact of whaling.