Tourists are driving Iceland’s whale meat trade

Tourists are driving Iceland’s whale meat trade

Chef Stefan Ulfarsson makes no bones about selling whale meat at his restaurant a short walk from Reykjavik’s tourist strip. Indeed, the owner of the Three Frakkar is so proud of it that he had a striking wooden statue of a whale’s tail in the restaurant garden.

The tourists pouring into the seafood restaurant are greeted by some of the delights on offer on the menu ‑ starters of roast whale with apples, balsamic and sunflower seed or raw whale meat sashimi Japanese-style, both for about £12, and whale pepper steak with pepper sauce for £26.70 as a main course. Also on offer are traditional Icelandic specialities such as a starter of smoked puffin breast at £12.74.

The restaurant is one of just a few in Reykjavik still serving whale meat.

But conservationists claim that whaling is being kept alive by tourists ‑ including Brits ‑ who are keen to try whale meat in the belief that it is a traditional delicacy.

Yet surveys by the International Fund for Animal Welfare consistently show that just two percent of Icelanders regularly eat whale meat.

The two faces of Iceland are evident in Reykjavik harbour where whale-watching boats tie up just a few yards from the last two Icelandic whaling boats.

Since Iceland resumed commercial whaling in 2006 more than 1,500 fin and minke whales have been killed in its waters. Minke whaling ended last year.

The last fin whaling firm, Hvalur, has a quota for about 170 fin whales a year, but has not been out for three years.

Whailing ships operate next to whale-watching tours (Image: Jonathan Buckmaster)
Whailing ships operate next to whale-watching tours (Image: Jonathan Buckmaster)

Hvalur’s owner, Kristján Loftsson yesterday told the Daily Express he will resume hunting once the pandemic eases.

Mr Loftsson, 78, said: “Without Covid-19, we would be in full swing. We would be hunting fin whales in Icelandic waters.”

He dismissed claims that whaling is cruel, saying: “The antis don’t know what they are talking about.

“When we are hunting we do it as quickly as we can. The equipment is so good.

“We use an explosive grenade screwed onto the harpoon which explodes when it is inside the animal and kills it instantly in most cases. Of course you can have misfires but whaling is very efficient compared to other hunts such as deer hunting.

“People hunt Bambi in the UK. Do you think that is cruel?”

Iceland hunts whales in defiance of a global whaling ban. Like Japan and Norway, it uses legal loopholes to continue whaling.

Standing outside his restaurant, Mr Ulfarsson, 52, said: “In the early days whale meat was a poor man’s food but we have tried to make it more of a delicacy.

“We want to introduce this to people around the world. Most people love the texture, how tender it is and its rich flavour.

“It is almost like beef tenderloin. It’s a very lean meat.

“It is from sustainable fishing. The whales are not overhunted.”

Asked if he thought whaling was cruel, he said: “I have been out on a minke whale hunt. The way I see it is that it is a 98 percent certain kill because the harpoon has dynamite on the end.”

But he hinted that tourism lies behind the demand for whale meat.

He said: “We only have fin whale. Its population is in the neighbourhood of 60,000 around Iceland and Iceland’s whaler has a quota for something like 150-190 a year but he has not been out for about three years.

“That’s because of problems in Japan. They’re not buying the meat and if they’re not buying, he is not hunting.”

He added: “We have a lot of fans in Iceland but a lot of tourists are interested. They want to be able to say they have tried whale meat.

“At the moment it is mainly American tourists but in normal times we get a lot of Brits. Brits are a big part of our clientele.”

Tourists are increasing demand (Image: ullstein bild/Getty)
Tourists are increasing demand (Image: ullstein bild/Getty)

Only a few hours earlier we saw Iceland’s whales thriving in their natural habitat.

Humpback whales ‑ which are not hunted off Iceland ‑ performed their party piece of diving slowly and gracefully, their tails or flukes the last to disappear beneath the waves.

It is the same image portrayed by the Three Frakkar’s statue.

Whale-watching is big business in Iceland. About 368,000 thrilled to the sight of these majestic mammals in 2017 ‑ more than the entire population of Iceland.

British whale watching guide Mike Smith, 29, from Rainham in Essex, urged tourists to help end whaling by boycotting restaurants that serve up whale meat.

Mike said: “In the past when Iceland was a poor country people used to eat whale meat as a matter of survival but there is no need for that now.

“Now most of the whale meat is eaten by tourists. A survey by the International Fund for animal Welfare found that only about two percent of Icelanders eat whale meat regularly.

“But restaurants brand it as a traditional Icelandic food and tourists like to eat the local specialities.

“Many tourists also don’t seem to see the connection between whales and whaling.

“Even this week two tourists told me quite proudly during a whale-watching tour that they had eaten whale and puffin. To me that is a bit conflicted.

“But there still seems to be a definite interest among tourists, including Brits, in eating whale meat.

“It comes down to the novelty value. It’s something they will not get in Britain and they want to be able to say they’ve tried it.

“But whaling is barbaric. The whales are shot with an explosive harpoon.

“The whalers aim for the head to ensure a quick death but in a rough sea and with the whale chopping and changing direction as it tries to escape you cannot guarantee that.

“You are putting a very intelligent, sentient animal through a long period of pain.

“If you are going to kill animals, it should be done as quickly and as painlessly as possible and you cannot ensure that with whaling.

“The best way to stop this is for tourists not to eat whale meat. Avoid the restaurants that serve if. Do not give them any money.

“They will quickly learn it should not be on their menus.”

Humpback whales live off the Icelandic coast (Image: Jonathan Buckmaster)
Humpback whales live off the Icelandic coast (Image: Jonathan Buckmaster)

Sharon Livermore, IFAW’s Marine Conservation Programme Director, said: “We are encouraged to see a third summer in Iceland with no whaling taking place and we hope this will continue.

“As tourism picks up again after the effects of Covid, we encourage visitors to Iceland to avoid eating whale meat but instead enjoy the amazing spectacle of whales in the wild, on a responsible whale-watching trip.

“Iceland is one of the best destinations in Europe to see a huge variety of whale species and the whale watching industry provides sustainable and significant income for coastal communities ‑ as well as being a humane alternative to the cruelty of whaling.

“In addition, with growing concerns about the unfolding global climate crisis, it is more vital than ever that we protect whales who play a valuable role in the marine ecosystem and are an important

component in enabling the ocean to capture and store carbon.”

John Ingham and Jonathan Buckmaster offset the greenhouse gases from their return flights to Iceland with C Level Earth

Loopholes that allow the killing

Save the Whale was one of the first green campaign success stories.

By harnessing worldwide horror at the slaughter of beautiful, sentient mammals and highlighting how so many species had been hunted close to extinction, the campaign ushered in a global ban on whaling by the International Whaling Commission in 1986.

But legal loopholes have allowed Japan, Norway and Iceland to carry on whaling.

Iceland initially raised no objection to the ban but in 1992 quit the IWC. When it rejoined in 2002 it lodged a “reservation” against whaling being outlawed.

It resumed commercial whaling in 2006 after giving itself a quota for fin and minke whales.

Since then more than 1,500 whales have been killed off Iceland, including 852 fin whales, which, at 48 tonnes, are the world’s second largest animal after the blue whale.

But declining demand for whale meat among Icelanders and problems with exporting fin whale meat to Japan have undermined the industry.

No whaling boats have gone out since the 2018 season.

Last year the head of the minke whale-hunting firm announced the end of the hunt because it was no longer profitable.

Gunnar Bergmann Jonsson, managing director of Icelandic company IP-Utgerd, said: ”I’m never going to hunt whales again. I’m stopping for good.”

But yesterday the owner of the sole surviving two whaling vessels, Kristján Loftsson, told the Daily Express that the only thing stopping him from resuming whaling was Covid-19.

It means that whale-watching tourists will continue to leave Reykjavik harbour just a few yards from Mr Loftsson’s two whaling boats with the distinctive H on their funnels ‑ a reminder that whaling is far from dead in Iceland.

Iceland resumed commercial whaling in 2006 (Image: Halldor Kolbeins/Getty)
Iceland resumed commercial whaling in 2006 (Image: Halldor Kolbeins/Getty)

Comment by Sharon Livermore

IFAW has worked in Iceland since 2003 when the country resumed whaling after a 14-year break. Since that time, more than 1,500 whales have been killed.

Iceland’s decision to train its harpoons on whales again in the early 2000s was a shock to many visitors who were discovering Iceland as one of the new eco-destinations with unspoilt landscapes and fascinating wildlife.

It was also confusing to those who thought commercial whaling was banned in the 1980s. Like Norway and Japan, Iceland exploited a loophole in the global moratorium to resume killing whales for commercial purposes; firstly minke whales and shortly after also hunting fin whales ‑ the second largest animal on the planet.

IFAW opposes commercial whaling because it is inherently cruel ‑ there is no humane way to kill a whale and they have been shown to take from several minutes to over half an hour to die.

Iceland’s whale-watching industry was taking off and fast becoming one of the country’s biggest tourist draws just as whaling restarted.

Many whale-watching operators, particularly those working from Reykjavik’s harbour, were concerned about the potential impact of whaling taking place close to whale watching.

IFAW worked with whale-watching coalition IceWhale to call for an end to whaling and better support for the whale watching industry.

We carried out regular polling of Icelanders from 2003 onwards to gauge support for whaling, and to see how many Icelanders regularly eat whale meat.

Polling showed little appetite for whale meat amongst most Icelanders, particularly the younger generation, and across age groups, regular whale meat consumption rarely rose above two percent.

For this reason, we didn’t expect minke whaling for the limited domestic market to rise. However, despite local consumption and support for whaling dwindling, the number of minke whales being hunted was increasing and the reason for this soon became apparent ‑ tourists.

With minke whale meat offered to restaurants cheaply or on a sale or return basis, tourists were being encouraged to sample whale meat during their visit.

Locals do not consume much whale meat (Image: Jonathan Buckmaster)
Locals do not consume much whale meat (Image: Jonathan Buckmaster)

With tourists driving up the number of whales killed for the dinner plate, IFAW and IceWhale launched a campaign in 2011 called ‘Meet Us

Don’t Eat Us’, to better inform curious tourists about the reality of trying whale meat.

This consisted of “myth-busting” three things tourists were told; that commercial whaling was a very traditional Icelandic activity, that most Icelanders eat whale meat, and that sampling it would make no difference.

In reality, commercial whaling was a recent activity and had not previously taken place on a large scale in Iceland; polling showed few Icelanders eat whale meat; and whales were being killed specifically to feed tourists.

When presented with this information, the majority of tourists decided not to eat whale meat, and were instead encouraged to support the coastal economy and enjoy seeing Iceland’s spectacular marine life on a responsible whale-watching trip.

Ultimately, the decision to end whaling in Iceland would be made by Icelanders themselves.

While there is still concern that whaling magnate Kristjan Loftsson could decide to go fin whaling again at some point to ensure a renewed quota beyond 2023, minke whaling has ended for good and Icelandic whale watching continues to thrive.

This article by John Ingham was first published by The Express on 11 August 2021. Lead Image: British whale-watching guide Mike Smith outside the restaurant serving whale meat (Image: Jonathan Buckmaster). Sharon Livermore is Marine Conservation Programme Director of the International Fund for Animal Welfare.

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