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.

Sea Ice Unusually Close to North Iceland Coast

The Coast Guard flight yesterday discovered plenty of sea ice unusually close to Iceland’s northern coastline, which could pose a risk to seafarers. At the same time, parts of the North Atlantic Ocean are warmer than ever before. RÚV reported first.

“We have some very scattered ice coming up to the shore some eight to nine nautical miles from Hornstrandir [nature reserve in the Westfjords], which is closer than we’ve been seeing lately,” sea ice expert Ingibjörg Jónsdóttir, who was on the flight yesterday, stated. Thicker sea ice was also present further out to sea. Although the ice is thin in many places, it could be dangerous for smaller ships, according to Ingibjörg.

While the sea of Iceland’s north coast is currently cold, south of the island it has reached higher temperatures than ever before. The average temperature in the North Atlantic Ocean has never measured higher since record-taking began, breaking records for the past three months in a row. The ocean’s average temperature is just over one degree hotter than the average over the past two decades. In some areas, it is up to 4 degrees Celsius hotter than is considered normal.

Halldór Björnsson, Coordinator of Atmospheric Research at the Icelandic Met Office, says there is no doubt about the reason for this warming. “The basic reason is that all the world’s oceans are much warmer than they were, and that is simply the result of global warming,” he stated.

Protest Job Loss Due to Whaling Ban

Páll Stefánsson. Whaling in Iceland, 2010

Local councils in West Iceland are urging the Minister of Fisheries to lift the ban on whaling implemented just one day before the season was set to begin. The last-minute decision has left some 200 employees of whaling company Hvalur hf. unexpectedly unemployed and will have a significant financial impact on the western region.

On June 20, Minister of Food, Agriculture, and Fisheries Svandís Svavarsdóttir temporarily halted the hunting of fin whales until August 31. The decision followed on the heels of a report that found whaling breached Iceland’s animal welfare legislation. The ban was implemented to enable an investigation on whether it is possible to ensure that hunting conforms to the legislation.

Only one company, Hvalur hf., was set to hunt whales this season. The company is based in Hvalfjörður, West Iceland, and typically employs around 200 people, most from the region, at the height of the hunting season. Both the municipal council of Akranes and the local council of Hvalfjörður have encouraged the Fisheries Minister to lift the whaling ban.

Tax and income losses

The Municipal Council of Akranes (pop. 7,986) published a resolution criticising the timing of the decision. “The ban was unexpected and a curveball to many Akranes residents who were counting on employment and income during the summer whaling season,” the resolution reads. The council estimates that it will lose tens of millions of ISK (hundreds of thousands of dollars) in local tax income due to the decision, affecting its ability to finance services to residents. The council stated that the ministry should carry out investigations before making such an impactful decision, not the other way around.

The local council of Hvalfjörður has also published a short statement on the temporary whaling ban, stating that its financial impact is significant, both directly and indirectly. “Hvalfjörður’s local council is not taking a stance on whaling with this statement but urges the Minister of Food to reconsider her decision,” the statement concludes.

More Cod, Haddock, and Herring in 2023-2024 Fishing Season

coastal fishing boat

Iceland’s Marine and Freshwater Research Institute (MFRI) has released advice on fishing opportunities for over 20 fish and invertebrate stocks in Icelandic waters for the 2023-2024 year. The recommendations include a 1% increase in the total allowable catch for cod, a 23% increase for haddock, and a 40% increase for herring, three key species for the Icelandic fishing industry. Fishing quotas issued by authorities are based on the MFRI’s recommendations.

More cod, haddock, and herring

The advised TAC (total allowable catch) for cod has been increased as there is a higher estimate of the reference biomass compared to the previous year. That mass is also expected to increase slightly in the next two or three years when the 2019 and 2020 cohorts of cod will be counted as adult fish. Those cohorts are estimated to be above average in terms of size. The 2023-2024 TAC for haddock will be 76,415 tonnes, a 23% increase from the previous year’s allowable catch, as the 2019-2021 cohorts are above average.

The stock size of the Icelandic summer spawning herring has increased following a period of constant decline between 2008 and 2019. Therefore, the advice for the 2023-2024 fishing year is 92,634 tonnes or a 40% increase from the previous fishing year’s TAC. Golden redfish advice represents a 62% increase from the previous year, but as recruitment in the species has been low, the advice is likely to decrease sharply in the coming years.

Less saithe and scallop and no beaked redfish

Recommendations for some fish and invertebrates have decreased compared to the previous fishing year, however. The advice for saithe, an important species for coastal fishermen, has been decreased by 7%. The total allowable catch for Iceland scallop has decreased by 19%, and the MFRI advises that no catch should be taken for demersal beaked redfish in the 2023-2024 year, as the stock is now estimated to be below the limit reference point for spawning stock biomass. It is not expect to recover in the near future.

The recommendations can be seen in full on the MFRI website.

Walrus Follows Man to Work in Iceland

Jón Sólmundsson rostungur

An employee of Iceland’s Marine and Freshwater Research Institute had an unusual commute to work this morning. Jón Sólmundsson was biking to his office in the town of Hafnarfjörður when he spotted a walrus in the harbour. The walrus then accompanied Jón on his journey for a few blocks before swimming away from the coast. It has since come ashore on the coast of Álftanes in the Reykjavík capital area, Vísir reports.

Jón Sólmundsson.

“I was biking and he followed me from Herjólfsgata street to Fjörukráin restaurant by Strandgata street,” Jón told reporters. “There he turned around and swam out into the fjord.” Walruses are not native to Iceland but have been spotted on its coast from time to time in recent years. A walrus dubbed Þór (Thor) delighted locals in Iceland earlier this year, stopping by Þórshöfn and Breiðdalsvík in East Iceland after being spotted in England. There are no indications that the one currently in the capital area is the same animal.

 

 

“He was also curious, there were some people that stopped to watch him and he seemed to be considering them too,” Jón added. While Jón works at the Marine and Freshwater Research Institute, he told reporters his area of specialty is fish, not walruses.

jón sólmundsson walrus rostungur

A live feed of the walrus is available on visir.is.

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.

Whaling Restarts in Iceland Following Four-Year Hiatus

Iceland whaling Hvalur hf

Two whaling ships owned by the company Hvalur hf. set off from Reykjavík harbour yesterday to begin the whaling season, RÚV reports. No commercial whaling has taken place in Iceland for four years, though a single minke whale was hunted in 2021. The whaling licence held by Hvalur hf. expires next year, and Iceland’s Minister of Fisheries has indicated that the practice of whaling may be discontinued in Iceland afterwards.

The whale hunting quota issued by Iceland’s Marine and Freshwater Research Institute for this season is 161 fin whales and 217 minke whales. The quota is based on appraisals from the North Atlantic Marine Mammal Commission and the International Whaling Commission. According to RÚV, the number of fin whales in Icelandic waters has increased steadily since counting began in 1987. Its conservation status is nevertheless listed as “vulnerable” according to the CITES Appendix. As of 2018, the IUCN Red List places minke whales in the “least concern” category.

Conflict with Food and Veterinary Authority

The whale hunting season lasts from June until late September, and some 150 employees are expected to staff Hvalur hf.’s whaling ships, whaling station in Hvalfjörður, West Iceland, and their processing plant in Hafnarfjörður, in the capital area. Hvalur hf.’s CEO Kristján Loftsson has stated that the main reason for the company’s lack of activity since 2018 is conflict with Iceland’s Food and Veterinary Authority concerning the company’s whaling station. He has also previously cited poor market conditions for whale products and the COVID-19 pandemic as factors.

Hvalur hf. embroiled in controversy

Whaling company Hvalur hf. 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.

Iceland’s second-last whaling season?

Earlier this year, Iceland’s Minister of Fisheries Svandís Svavarsdóttir stated she sees little reason to permit whaling after Hvalur hf.’s current licence expires in 2023. In an op-ed published in Morgunblaðið newspaper, Svandís wrote that there is little evidence that whaling is economically beneficial to Iceland. She also pointed out that the controversial nature of the practice has a negative impact on Iceland, though it may be hard to measure. Svandís stated that the government would carry out an assessment on the potential economic and social impact of whaling this year.

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.”