Whaling Season Begins in Iceland, Charges Pressed Against Activists

whaling in iceland

Iceland’s only active whaling company Hvalur hf. is set to begin the whaling season today, Vísir reports. Iceland’s Minister of Fisheries instituted a temporary ban on whaling earlier this year but lifted the ban at the end of August. Hvalur hf. has pressed charges against two activists who occupied their ships for around 33 hours, preventing them from heading out to sea. While the company is permitted to hunt whales once more, it is subject to stricter regulations and increased surveillance.

Hvalur presses charges against activists

Activists Anahita Babaei and Elissa Bijou, who climbed the masts of whaling ships Hvalur 8 and Hvalur 9 in Reykjavík harbour early Monday morning, descended from their outposts yesterday afternoon. Police took Babaei’s backpack shortly after the ships were occupied, leaving her without food and water for the duration of the protest. Hvalur hf. has pressed charges against Babaei and Bijou for breaking and entering. The two were taken to the police station on Hverfisgata yesterday after they descended from the ships.

Police actions criticised by human rights experts

Chief Superintended of Police Ásgeir Þór Ásgeirsson told Vísir that Babaei’s backpack had been taken in order to shorten the protest and to increase the likelihood of it ending sooner. The move has been criticised, including by the director of the Icelandic Human Rights Centre and legal experts. Police stated throughout the protest that Babaei and Bijou could have food and water if they descended from the ships.

Whaling to be recorded on video

Kristján Loftsson, director of Hvalur hf., told Vísir yesterday that the company’s two ships, Hvalur 8 and Hvalur 9, were on their way to the whaling station in Hvalfjörður, West Iceland to pick up equipment. He stated that they would head out to sea today, September 6. The ships are subject to increased surveillance and stricter regulations set by the Minister of Fisheries this month.

Elín Ragnarsdóttir, head of fishing surveillance at the Directorate of Fisheries, called the new regulations on surveillance “much broader and more detailed” than previous rules. She also stated that they included “a lot more record-taking, especially in terms of animal welfare.” She confirmed that all whaling conducted this season would be recorded on video.

Iceland’s Popularity Grows – Among Walruses

Köfunarþjónustan ehf. / Facebook. A walrus takes a break in Sauðárkrókur, Northwest Iceland

No fewer than four walruses have wandered over to Iceland so far this year. Walruses are not native to the country but since the start of this year, individuals have made stops in East Iceland, the Westfjords, Northwest Iceland, and the capital area. Walruses can be dangerous and readers are warned against approaching them.

Last Thursday, archaeologists working on a dig in Arnarfjörður in the Westfjords spotted a walrus out in the water. It was later spotted sunning itself on the shores of the fjord near Hrafnseyri, RÚV reports, and stayed on into the weekend. Just a few days earlier, a different walrus made himself at home on a floating dock in Sauðárkrókur harbour in Northwest Iceland. “It’s our new pet,” port security officer Ágúst Kárason told reporters. “He’s damn big and hefty, an adult with big tusks.”

Followed to work by walrus

In early June, a staff member of the Marine and Freshwater Research Institute in Hafnarfjörður, in the capital area, was accompanied by a walrus on his morning commute. “I was biking and he followed me from Herjólfsgata street to Fjörukráin restaurant by Strandgata street. There he turned around and swam out into the fjord,” Jón Sólmundsson told reporters. “He was also curious, there were some people that stopped to watch him and he seemed to be considering them too.”

Yet another walrus spotted in Breiðdalsvík, East Iceland in February turned out to be celebrity walrus Thor, who had spent the winter sightseeing around the UK with stops in the Netherlands and France. Walruses seen in Iceland generally arrive from the shores of Greenland or from northern Norway, but Thor may have travelled from the Canadian Arctic. There were no indications that any of the four walruses were the same animal.

Swam from Ireland to Iceland

More walrus visits have occurred in Iceland over the past few years. One was spotted on June 17, 2022 in the town of Reyðarfjörður, East Iceland. A GPS tag on the animal revealed that it had swum over from the Faroe Islands. In September 2021, a walrus spotted in Höfn, Southeast Iceland turned out to be Wally the Walrus, who had been previously spotted in Spain, Wales, and the Isles of Scilly (off the UK coast). Wally had last been seen in Cork, Ireland before being spotted in Iceland, meaning he had swum over 1,000 km [620 mi] to reach the island.

Icelandic subspecies went extinct after human settlement

Iceland used to be home to a special subspecies of walrus, but it became extinct around 1100 AD, most likely due to overhunting by humans. Walrus tusks were considered precious at the time and were sought-after by royalty in Scandinavia and elsewhere. Other factors, such as rising temperatures and volcanic eruptions, may have been factors in the animals’ extinction as well.

Activists Preparing to Intercept Icelandic Whaling Ships

Iceland whaling Hvalur hf

A group of activists led by Paul Watson, co-founder of Greenpeace, are preparing a ship in Hull, England, for the mission of intercepting Icelandic whaling ships this summer, the BBC reports. Watson stated that the ship, which is owned by his non-profit organisation, would “block, harass, and get in the way” of Icelandic whaling vessels to prevent “illegal” whaling operations.

Whaling restarted in Iceland last summer following a four-year hiatus. Watson specified that his group would only “oppose criminal operations, not legitimate companies.” Only one company currently holds a whaling licence in Iceland: Hvalur hf., which Watson has previously accused of illegal whaling.

While the whale hunting conducted by Hvalur hf. is legal according to Icelandic law, the company has been embroiled in several controversies in recent years. Public outcries followed when Hvalur hf. killed a pregnant fin whale and a rare hybrid whale in 2018. Hvalur hf. was at risk of losing their whaling licence after failing to submit captains’ logs for the 2014, 2015, and 2018 seasons. The company has also been sued by three of its shareholders as well as by activists.

Icelandic authorities may put an end to whaling anyway

The efforts of Watson and his crew may not be necessary to stop Icelandic whaling for good. Hvalur hf.’s whaling licence expires at the end of this year, and Iceland’s Minister of Food, Agriculture, and Fisheries has indicated she may not issue further licences for the controversial practice. In an op-ed published in Morgunblaðið newspaper last year, Minister Svandís Svavarsdóttir wrote she sees little reason to permit whaling in Iceland after 2023. According to Svandís, there is little evidence that whaling is economically beneficial to Iceland and it likely has a negative impact on the country, though that impact may be hard to measure.

A recent survey conducted by Maskína for the Iceland Nature Conservation Association found a greater number of Icelanders opposed whaling than supported it. Two-thirds of respondents believed it negatively impacted Iceland’s reputation.

Little Justification to Continue Whaling, Iceland’s Fisheries Minister Says

Svandís Svavarsdóttir, Iceland’s Minister of Fisheries, stated there is little evidence that whaling is economically beneficial to Iceland. The current government regulations allows for whaling until the year 2023, and Svandís says she sees little reason to permit the practice after that licence expires.

In a column published in Morgunblaðið newspaper today, Svandís points out that since whaling for commercial purposes was reintroduced in 2006, several hundred fin whales and a considerable number of minke whales have been killed. She states that it is undisputed that whaling is not of great economic importance. Over the past three years, only one minke whale has been killed, in 2021.

The companies that had a licence to whale during these years chose not to do so. Svandís says there could be several reasons for that choice, “but perhaps the simple explanation is that sustained losses from this hunting is the most likely outcome.” The consumption of whale meat in Japan, Iceland’s main market for the product, is declining. The Minister also points out that whaling is a controversial practice, and this has a negative impact on Iceland, though it may be hard to measure.

Hvalur hf., Iceland’s main whaling company, has been embroiled in several controversies in recent years. Public outcries followed when the company killed a pregnant fin whale and a rare hybrid whale in 2018. Hvalur hf. was at risk of losing their whaling licence after failing to submit captains’ logs for the 2014, 2015, and 2018 seasons. The company has been sued by three of its shareholders as well as by activists.

Svandís stated that the government would carry out an assessment on the potential economic and social impact of whaling this year.

Sprat: New Fish Species Breeding Off Iceland’s Coast

Researchers have confirmed that the fish species sprat is spawning in Icelandic waters, according to a new report from Iceland’s Marine and Freshwater Research Institute. Sprat has been found in significant numbers off the south and west coast and spawned near Ísafjarðardjúp fjord in the Westfjords last year. Sprat first appeared near the Icelandic coast in 2017, and its numbers have been increasing since. 

Probably originate from Faroese waters

As seen in the picture above, sprat is not dissimilar to herring, a commercial species important in Icelands fishing industry. It has likely reproduced in more locations than just near Ísafjarðardjúp, according to the report. Over the past few years, Icelandic vessels have fished the species in greater numbers.

The most likely explanation for the appearance of sprat is that sprat larvae were carried to Icelandic waters by ocean currents before hatching near the coast of Iceland. Approximately 1,000 tonnes of sprat was fished by Faroese vessels in 2020, and the larvae likely originated from Faroese waters; however, no eggs, larvae, or mature sprat have been found in the waters between Iceland and the Faroe Islands, says Jón Sólmundsson, an ichthyologist with the Marine & Freshwater Research Institute, and who recently authored an article on sprat in the magazine Náttúrufræðingurinn

Even though sprat was first fished near Iceland in 2017, Jón believes that the species had been fished by Icelandic fishing vessels earlier, given its similarity in appearance to young herring. 

Only time will tell

Sprat is the common name applied to a group of forage fish belonging to the genus Sprattus in the family Clupeidae. Sprat is a highly active, small, oily fish, which travels in sizeable schools with other fish and swims continuously throughout the day. According to Jón, it is unclear whether sprat will begin to breed near the Icelandic coast more permanently; water temperature and other environmental factors will determine whether sprat will become an important species within Icelandic fishing grounds.

Wally the Walrus Swam from Ireland to Iceland

Wally the walrus Höfn

The walrus spotted on Sunday night in Höfn, Southeast Iceland, has been identified as Wally the Walrus, who was last seen in West Cork, Ireland. Wally, reportedly a young male, has made quite a journey of nearly 5,000km [2,485mi] this summer: and has been spotted in Spain, Wales, and the Isles of Scilly (off the UK coast).

Wally was identified by Seal Rescue Ireland thanks to scars on his front flippers. He was first seen in Iceland 22 days after his last sighting in West Cork. “We are absolutely over the moon that he’s not only still alive and well, but he is well on his way home to the Arctic,” a Facebook post from the organisation stated.

https://www.facebook.com/sealrescueireland/posts/4462552437101199

Iceland does not have a local walrus population, though a walrus does turn up in the country every few years or so, usually arriving from Greenland.

Beluga Sisters Take First Swim in Open-Sea Sanctuary

Beluga whales Little White & Little Grey take their first swim in their Beluga Whale Sanctuary home in Iceland

Two former captive beluga whales, Little Grey and Little White, have taken their first swim in their new open water sanctuary home in the Westman Islands of Iceland. The whales explored Klettsvík Bay for the first time under the watchful eye of their care team as part of their gradual release into the bay called the ‘Little Steps’ programme.

The two whales, who are sisters, were raised in captivity and thus cannot be fully released into the wild. Before arriving in Iceland in June 2019, the whales were housed in concrete tanks in a Shanghai amusement park. Their journey to Iceland involved a flight, truck, and ferry trips, and will be the subject of a documentary to air on ITV this October.

“We’re delighted that Little Grey and Little White are now exploring the wider bay and adapting well to their new, natural, stimulating environment,” stated Cathy Williamson of Whale and Dolphin Conservation, one of several organisations behind the creation of the sanctuary. “As well as providing an exciting home for Little Grey and Little White, we look forward to welcoming other belugas here and encouraging the development of sanctuaries in other parts of the world. We hope this will mean that many of the more than 3,500 whales and dolphins held in captivity for shows and swim with attractions can be brought to sanctuaries to live more natural lives or be rehabilitated for a return to the wild.”

Little Grey and Little White’s journey involved many challenges: before the transport, the whales underwent a strict exercise regime to help them adjust to the conditions of their home-to-be. Since their arrival in Iceland, they have been housed in pools at the sanctuary as they adjust to the new conditions. The whales moved to bayside care pools in August and have now taken their first swim out in the wider bay, the next step toward introducing them gradually into their sanctuary home.

Extensive Coral Reefs Found Off Icelandic Coast

Extensive coral reefs have been found off the southern coast of Iceland, RÚV reports. Some of these have been significantly damaged by fishing gear, but scientists are hopeful of finding intact, healthy coral in nearby areas.

Icelandic scientists have been consulting with ship captains regarding areas where coral reefs might be found around Iceland since around 2000 and have spent the intervening decades comprehensively mapping the seabed floor off the country’s coasts. In so doing, they found vast coral reefs to the south, out from Reykjanesskaga peninsula, and also to the west.

Screenshot from RÚV

“These are deep-sea coral,” explained marine biologist Steinunn Hilma Ólafsdóttir. “They prefer colder seas, are found deeper. The coral we have here around Iceland are found at a depth of 200-600 metres (656-1,968ft) and are, in reality, the same type of coral, stony coral [Scleractinia]. But these corals here around Iceland are carnivores, they don’t utilise sunlight like the corals in Australia do.”

Australia’s Great Barrier Reef has been subject to significant damage due to rising sea temperatures, which is not currently thought to be a risk for coral reefs around Iceland. Instead, the local reefs have to face an entirely different problem: damage from fishing gear. Some fishing grounds around coral reef beds have been closed in order to protect them and, with luck, continued seabed mapping will help scientists better identify areas where coral reefs are prevalent.

Screenshot from RÚV

“We’ve seen areas that are ruined, if you can put it that way,” remarked Steinunn Hilma. “Completely destroyed because they’re located in fishing grounds. But we’ve also since seen coral areas that are incredibly beautiful – large and expansive coral areas with big coral reefs.”

Case Against Whaling Company Could Lead to Its Dissolution

Three shareholders of whaling company Hvalur hf. have sued the company, demanding to redeem their shares for the amount of ISK 1,563,000,000 ($11.2m/€9.9m) plus penal interest, Vísir reports. The shareholders have just over a 5.3% stake in the company. Hvalur hf.’s CEO says there is a chance the case could force the company to dissolve.

The shareholders are companies owned by Einar Sveinsson, Benedikt Einarsson, and Ingimundur Sveinsson. The allege that Hvalur’s CEO Kristján Loftsson bought “substantially discounted” shares in the company and waived the board’s right to purchase, thereby acquiring “undue interests” at the expense of other shareholders. The principal proceedings in the case are expected to start in September.

The trio believe this is a violation of corporate law and, as a consequence, their companies have the right to cash in their shares. This particular article has never been tried in court. Kristján states that if the court rules in the shareholders’ favour, it could lead to Hvalur hf.’s dissolution, as it may lead other shareholders to demand buyouts at the same price. He does not, however, believe that is what the majority of the company’s shareholders want.

Hvalur hf. has not conducted any whaling since 2018, citing an unfavourable market. It is, however, conducting research on various whale by-products for use in potential dietary supplements and therapeutic applications. Commercial whaling in Iceland has been controversial both in the country and abroad. Hvalur hf. has previously made headlines for failing to turn in hunting records, and the killing of a hybrid whale. The company was granted a five-year whaling licence in 2019.

Orca Completes 8,000km Swim from Iceland to Lebanon

A male orca whale belonging to an Icelandic pod was sighted around Beirut, Lebanon, on February 19 and 20. Per a press release issued by Orca Guardians of Iceland, this is a journey of just over 8,000 kilometres (4,970 miles) and is the longest known one-way distance travelled by any ‘killer whale’ to date.

The whale identified as SN113, or “Riptide,” started his journey off the coast of the Snæfellsnes peninsula in West Iceland, where he was last seen in June 2018. He and his pod were later spotted around Genoa, Italy in December 2019 before moving on to Lebanon. Orca Guardians say this is also the first confirmed sighting of an orca in Lebanese waters. RÚV reports that Riptide’s marathon swim has broken the previous record for longest documented distance travelled by an orca by 2,500 km (1,553 miles).

https://www.facebook.com/orcaguardians/posts/2515333902030520

Orca Guardians head Marie-Thérèse Mrusczok was able to identify Riptide by markings on his dorsal fin and head using photographs of the wandering whale and comparing them to her organisation’s catalogue of 300 individuals. Orca Guardians has some concern for Riptide’s health at this point, as the whale is reported to appear emaciated and is travelling without the other members of its pod, who had been his companions both in Iceland and in Italy.

Orca Guardians report that there are 29 known orca whales that migrate Scotland and Iceland, but that this is the first time an orca has travelled this particular route, from Iceland to Italy to Lebanon. In an interview with RÚV, Marie-Thérèse said that it is, in fact, unusual for an orca to swim into Mediterranean waters at all.

“Orcas have never really been seen before in Lebanon,” she explained. “There were sailors who said they saw them swimming there in the 1980s, but nothing was confirmed. So this is unusual. It was also strange when they were seen in Italy. Orcas don’t usually swim so far into the Mediterranean.”