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Iceland and the Faroe Islands - Tradition or unnecessary slaughter?


a belief, principle, or way of acting that people in a particular society or group have continued to follow for a long time, or all of these beliefs, etc. in a particular societyor group:

Now we can see it, the Cambridge dictionary definition of tradition, I must ask, are traditions always necessary? Traditions are often in place because a group of people believe that certain actions, celebrations, gatherings must be passed down and carried on throughout generations. Sometimes it’s just Bonfire night fireworks, or the cutting of turkey on Christmas, but traditions can be a lot bigger than just household activities. But what happens when these traditions do more harm than good? Where does it leave us when the traditions that are still being carried on are outdated, the need for them is no longer present and they are damaging more than they’re repairing?

That’s what I’ll be talking about today, traditions in Iceland and the Faroe Islands.

I was recently inspired by some conversations with friends that sent me into a rabbit hole, realising I really didn’t know that much about whale hunting, or how common it really is, why it’s done, where and what’s being done about it. Sadly, what I found did not instil me with much confidence.

Beginning in Iceland, Iceland used to regularly hunt endangered Fin and Minke whales; this has been done for years and became part of Icelandic tradition, carrying on despite protests from activists, and the fact that it was no longer a necessary practice. I also use the word “used to” lightly, I believe that Iceland is still, to this specific day hunting whales.

The Fin meat was sent to Japan for trade and the Minke was served to tourists.

Let’s take a look at Minke whales and Fin whales and who they are, what they mean to our planet.

Beginning with the Fin whale, the majestic giant, also known as the Finback whale are the second largest marine mammal; weighing up to 80 tons and growing 65-80 feet in length. These large creatures can be divided into two subgroups: the northern and the southern Fin whale. Found in deep, far offshore waters of mostly all the major oceans, they are vital to our ecosystems, living at the top of the food chain, they help to contain a number of populations, albeit small food such as krill, schooling fish and even sometimes squid, it all adds up. They are mostly found roaming around in the Pacific, Indian and Atlantic oceans. Sadly, they’re now endangered, which is why we must question our “traditions”.

Now, Mink whales are spread throughout the Northern hemisphere in the Northern Atlantic and Pacific oceans. Being the opposite of the Fin whale, they are known as the smallest of the great whales, only growing to a mere 35 feet, and weighing just 9 tonnes. Often found living in solitude, they do not display any group hunting behaviours like many others of their kind. Their average life expectancy is around forty years of age that we know of.

Now the whale introduction is out of the way, we can move onto looking at the focus of the post, the traditions and where they take place. Beginning with Iceland:

Iceland began whaling as early as the 12th century, they hunted Narwhals for their “unicorn” type horn and a selection of other whales for the meat; hunters would spear the whales and then split the meat when they returned to land.

Skipping ahead to more modern times, whale meat soon became a big part of Iceland’s tourism trade- with tourists travelling from all over the world to consume their whale meat, this was coupled with an increasing demand for whale meat in Japan, (Iceland are one of three whaling nations which also include Japan and Norway) where Iceland would ship a lot of their hunt over to. Most of the money from the hunt came from selling to Japan and Iceland benefitted off it greatly for a while.

But in 1982 the International Whaling Commission had the aim to stop all commercial whaling and, by 1986, this was put into action.

Although this was put into place, Iceland sneakily continued to hunt a few dozen whales a year under the alias of a “scientific whaling programme” until 1989, which was not classed as “commercial whaling” so was not stopped.

This non whaling period did sadly come to a halt by 2006, when whale hunting was reintroduced to Iceland. Resuming to advertise to the tourist and meat trade again; throughout 2006-2018, 852 whales were killed off these shores alone. This decision was heavily supported as many Icelandic people at the time believed that whaling was akin to fishing, so they see no more issue to it than they do the regular fishing trade, believing that whaling caused no more damage than regular local fishing vessels. To add to this, they also see it as a large part of their heritage and cultural tradition, Icelandic people used to hunt whale meat so their ancestors could survive, but in this century that isn’t the case, so why maintain a tradition that’s essentially doing more harm than good, if it’s no longer necessary for survival? It was argued that this tradition needs no longer be carried out.

Unnecessarily harming hundreds of mammals a year; it is believed Minke Whales were hit especially hard, their population almost halved by 2007. It must be added that this was also due to environmental reasons such as global warming and temperature changes, but the hunt is not exactly what this species needed added to their already worrying list of threats. And as a collective species, knowing this information should we not be protecting the other inhabitants of this planet, especially when their population is in danger and educating others, not further slaughtering them?

It's not only tradition and heritage that keeps this cruel sport alive, but tourism. Many tourists travel to Iceland with the intent to eat whale meat. Believing that whale meat is a traditional delicacy, which is not incorrect, at one point, it was. But it is no longer a regular delicacy in Iceland, the reality now is that about 2% of Iceland’s population eat whale meat. More tourists have eaten whale meat in recent years than Icelandic people. The push of tourism and its connection to whale consumption encourages hunting.

The other side of tourism does include whale watching though and it’s not just tourists, some locals also enjoyed whale watching and around this time at least one in four tourists would go whale watching when visiting Iceland. This was a positive push for whales as it encouraged a movement to protect them yet again, with the argument that tourists whale watch, and with tourism being such a large income for Iceland, this was important. Why would whale watchers want to visit a country that kills such a magnificent species? This of course also got a lot of backing from eco-friendly activists. It was around this time that a whale sanctuary was then established, this moved the whalers along slightly and put a bit of a rift in their nets (literally) and there was a drop in whale hunting for a while, the sanctuary took up area where the whalers would’ve previously hunted.

Once again this did not last too long, less than two months went by, and the whalers moved back into waters where the sanctuary should have been and carried on with their “tradition” they pushed back and this time it was harder to stop the wheels in motion.

Though, moving forward, a campaign by Icewhale (the country’s association of whale watching) encouraged the government to push back again and this resulted in the expansion of the Whale sanctuary, which then proceeded to eliminate all of the whalers hunting grounds.

Most of the whales caught in Iceland previously were caught within the areas that the sanctuary now owned.

In recent years many people thought whaling was on a decline, with a lack of consumption of whale meat In Iceland itself, and touristry being almost eradicated by Covid, all looked good for the whales for a while in 2020; there would be no whales hunted in Iceland this year.

Another reason whaling completely declined around this time is because Japan became a difficult market for whale meat. One Icelandic company that was hunting mainly for whale fins to ship to Japan was losing out on almost all their business entirely. Japan had begun to hunt in their own waters more frequently than before, this may have also been due to Covid but this meant the competition was fiercer and Icelandic companies could not compete with Japan’s own whale trade, because why pay another country for something you could now get yourself?

Also, by this time Japan had cut down on their own consumption of whale meat, so the meat they had already hunted was sat in a growing pile, they did not need to keep adding to this amount of whale meat they couldn’t easily shift, it would be more of a financial loss.

So, with the need for whale meat in both Iceland and Japan on the decline, it just wasn’t selling. So of course, that’s when whaler Kristiján Loftsson started to try to sell Fin whale oil as “eco-friendly biofuel” to fuel their own whaling ships.

By this time in 2020 there had also been quite a drastic attitude change towards whaling. This meant people had less of a positive outlook towards it, this, in turn made whalers reconsider slightly what they were doing as they had less backing from the general public at this point. At the forefront of this were the whale watchers, who had now drastically increased. More people went whale spotting in Iceland between 2012-2016 than ever before. Where the Icelandic whale watchers and visitors increased the tourists who wanted to try whale meat decreased; less and less people travelled to Iceland to consume whale meat and by 2020 less than 1% of the Icelandic population consumed it. Campaigning by IFAW and Icewhale heavily encouraged this and because of this increase in whale watching the whale sanctuary’s ground increased yet again and eradicated the whalers hunting grounds entirely.

Now entering 2022… Hvalur (an Icelandic whaling ship) and the owner Kristján Loftsson went ahead on another whaling hunt, around a month or so ago (June 2022), the last trip the ship went out on was 2018 and 146 whales suffered during the season (June-September). There are less and less excuses for these people to now carry this on, as so little of Iceland’s population consume the meat it is no longer needed for traditional purposes. On top of this, whaling now damages the tourist industry as people no longer want to support it, and post covid, because Iceland is an island they have been damaged enough through not receiving any tourism, as tourism is their largest export, so Hvalur sailing out is no good for the island on a whole, and therefore probably not something the locals agree with. Whaling brings in money,to an extent, but tourism, including whale watching brings in more.

We can only hope, but this may be Iceland’s last hunting year as the whale hunting license expires in 2023, then Iceland’s minister of fisheries and agriculture must decide whether to stop issuing whaling licenses from 2024.

Iceland is not alone with their whale hunting traditions, the Faroe Islands (an island between Iceland and Ireland) are another island that partake in a mass hunt every year.

Up to 1000 migrating pilot whales and dolphins are killed here each year as part of a tradition called Grindadráp – from the Faroese terms grindhvalur meaning pilot whale and dráp meaning killing. Which has been ongoing from around 1548.

This is the horrific tradition that can be identified by its barbaric dyeing of the sea, turning it blood red during the killing.

This act is non-commercial, which means the meat is not sold or dispersed for financial gain. To start the ceremony the whales are spotted by someone from the shores of the island, there is no exact date for when this happens, it is simply just when the whales are spotted first, they are then circled in, bringing them close to the shore, trapped and attacked. If you could believe, this practice used to be even more brutal than it is today, to kill the whales they used to use spear type tools to stab them to death over a longer period of time but now a hook is inserted into their backs and the spinal cord is ripped out- killing them instantly (as if this is meant to give you too much relief).

As this hunt is non-commercial it is illegal to sell the meat, so it is distributed throughout the island. Grindadráp is an old tradition and it came about as nothing can really grow on the Faroe Islands besides rhubarb and the only livestock they can keep is sheep. So, because of this the whales used to be caught and shared out between the whole island so people could survive, but post-industrial revolution this isn’t really needed. So now it’s just done for “traditions” sake, but its arguably just the killing of innocent beings with no purpose at all now, with no need to put food on the table in the same sense as hundreds of years ago, it is no longer life or death- supermarkets do exist.

Once caught the whale is cut up and divided and split in a hierarchical system; the spotter (the individual who first spotted the whale pod from the island) gets a whale for his / her own family, then the individuals who helped with the act of killing get a share, then it is divided throughout all the villages.

This ritual of cutting and dividing can take all day, and each hunt can rake in up to 40-50 whales.

When this ritual is finished the carcasses are then thrown back into the sea, with some claiming this adds to “the circle of life”. Personally, I don’t believe so, you’re no part of their natural life cycle, you’re just hunting them and dumping them back wherever seems to be convenient, using the “something will feed on it” excuse to try and slightly justify some of the actions.

You’d think that at this point, the government may have had some say or intervened but sadly the Danish government support this tradition and therefore will also claim it is not technically their land to govern on, meaning they have left it alone for quite some time. Seashepherd (a non-profit conservation society and activism organisation) have already been arrested for interfering with it, trying to get it stopped and save our whales.

Seashepherd have been opposing Grindadráp since the 1980s and have since officially submitted a request to the European Commission to launch infringement proceedings against Denmark for facilitating the slaughter of Pilot Whales and other cetaceans in the Faroe islands.

Seashepherd argues that Denmark are part of the EU, who are against whaling and signatory to the UN convention law which protects sea mammals. Seashepherd is trying to get Denmark’s politicians involved and to stop them looking the other way when it comes to the Faroe Islands, but sadly it seems you cannot hunt whales in Denmark, but you can on the islands, as they are not directly connected which is where they find their loophole, alongside being in favour with the Danish parliament.

-photo taken from the @seashpherdiceland instagram account-

A lot of this has been very factual, seemingly or feelingly punctual in a way I don’t feel used to but the topic itself does not seem to hold room for light-heartedness or bends when it comes to writing, no part of me has any argument for these topics, I, as a marine biology student and as a human being with feelings, am fully against whaling, whatever the reason may be or where at this given time.

I just wanted to add this footnote as a personal add on, since this has been such a long and potentially emotional read for some. It was not so fun to sit and to write out, and much longer than some of my other posts, but I wanted to give the subject some awareness, or even some thought, as its people like us who can also help (I have added a link from Seashepherd’s website, focusing on whaling in Iceland Islands if anyone’s interested in reading more from the frontlines or in more detail)

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