Motion of No Confidence Against Fisheries Minister Fails

Alþingishúsið

A vote of no confidence motion against the Minister of Fisheries, Bjarkey Olsen Gunnarsdóttir, was held in Alþingi today. The motion came in response to Bjarkey’s recent decision to grant Hvalue hf. a one-year fin whale hunting license and was brought forth by the Centre Party. The motion did not gather enough votes, however, and did not pass.

The motion of no confidence was the first item on the agenda of today’s Alþingi session. At the beginning of the session, the Social Democratic Alliance, the People’s Party, the Liberal Reform Party, and the Pirate Party had pledged to support the motion against the minister. The Progressive Party had pledged to defend the minister, and the centre-right Independence Party remained uncommitted.

Criticism from both sides

Bjarkey’s decision to grant the one-year permit has drawn vocal critique from both sides of the whaling issue, with anti-whaling activists decrying the decision to grant the permit at all, and pro-whaling interests criticizing both the length of the permit (Hvalur hf. has historically been granted a five-year whale hunting permit) and the time it took to process the permit.

Yesterday, a statement was published by Fisheries Iceland (an interest group for the fishing industry in Iceland) director Heiðrún Lind Marteinsdóttir critiquing both Bjarkey and former Minister of Fisheries Svandís Svavardóttir for hindering legitimate whaling activity.

Central to the statement is a legal argument which frames whaling as a human right, based on the employment provision in Article 75 of Iceland’s constitution: “People’s rights to continue the work they have undertaken and base their livelihoods on are protected by both the freedom of employment provision (Article 75) and the property rights provision (Article 72) of the constitution. Often, this involves work for which people have received special government permits or public authorization […] In this context, it must be noted that Hvalur met all the legal conditions for the whaling permit they applied for, had held the permit for years, met the requirements, and there was no indication of changes to the permit issuance process. Therefore, the company had particularly legitimate expectations of receiving the permit in time for the upcoming whaling season. No legal changes justified a different or altered procedure, and all necessary documents were in place to issue the permit without undue delay. This highlights the clear unlawfulness of the current Minister of Food’s decision.”

Hvalur hf. CEO Kristján Loftsson has also stated publicly that the delay in processing the permit, and the one-year duration, may hinder Hvalur’s ability to operate in time for the whaling season.

Bjarkey has defended her decision and the delay, stating that it was necessary to wait for the opinions of all concerned parties before granting the permit.

Government stands with Bjarkey

Among the lengthy debates in today’s Alþingi session, Prime Minister Bjarni Benediktsson also defended the Minister of Fisheries, stating “clearly, the minister has the support of the majority of this government. We are likely to witness a rather unexciting vote.”

When the motion was finally put to the vote, it was rejected, with 35 voting against, and 23 voting for the motion. The voting broke down clearly along party lines, with the exception of former Minister of Justice Jón Gunnarsson, who abstained.

This is the third motion of no confidence for this ruling coalition. A motion of no confidence was initiated against former Minister of Justice Jón Gunnarsson last year, which did not pass. A motion of no confidence was also initiated against former Minister of Fisheries Svandís Svavarsdóttir in January of this year, but was withdrawn.

Hvalur hf. Granted Permit to Hunt Fin Whale This Year

whaling in iceland

Minister of Fisheries Bjarkey Olsen Gunnarsdóttir has granted Hvalur hf., the only Icelandic fin whaling company, a permit to hunt fin whale this year. The permit is valid for a total of 128 fin whales. The minister stated that the government was obligated to issue the permit, despite her own personal stance on the matter.

Read more: Iceland to decide on continued whaling

Following the expiration of their 5-year whale hunting permit, Hvalur hf. applied to renew their permit this past January.

The much-awaited decision came today after some delay. As fin whale hunting begins in June, parties on both sides of the issues had critiqued the minister for delaying the government decision.

Read more: Sea Change

While Hvalur hf. had previously applied for another 5-year permit, the permit just granted by the minister is only valid for the 2024 hunting season, allowing a quota of 99 animals in the Greenland-West Iceland area and 29 animals in the East Iceland-Faroe Islands area, totaling 128 whales.

The hunting quota is within recommendations made by the Marine and Freshwater Institute. Regulations made by previous Minister of Fisheries Svandís Svavarsdóttir are still in effect. MAST, the Icelandic Food and Veterinary Authority, also made recommendations last year for stricter supervision and regulation of the controversial industry. Current Minister of Fisheries Bjarkey Gunnarsdóttir has stated that these measures are still under consideration.

Iceland News Review: Will We Whale or Won’t We?

In this episode of Iceland News Review, there’s a storm brewing around fin whale hunting, some new twists in the presidential race, one’s man fight to keep his “awful” name, and much more.

Iceland News Review brings you all of Iceland’s top stories, every week, with the context and background you need. Be sure to like, follow and subscribe so you don’t miss a single episode!

Whale-Watching From Reykjavík

Whales of Iceland

Everybody talks about Húsavík, in the north of Iceland, to be the whale-watching capital of Iceland – but what about Reykjavík? In Reykjavík’s home bay, Faxaflói, spanning between the Reykjanes and Snæfellsness peninsula, you can observe a surprising amount of whales that come every year to feed in the nutrient-dense waters! Which whales can you observe on a whale-watching tour from Reykjavík, and is it worth it compared to other places in Iceland?

Whale-Watching from Reykjavík

How can I get there?

On a beautiful but crisp Thursday morning in March, we headed to the Elding ticket booth right in the Reykjavík harbour to pick up our tickets for our three-hour classic whale-watching tour. Stepping through the whale-watching centre “Fífill”, a permanently docked old fishing vessel, we already got a small taste of what we were about to see. The former vessel holds a small souvenir shop and information centre, including a very intriguing minke whale skeleton hanging from the ceiling. Our tour’s boat is called “Eldey”, a former Norwegian ferry that carries two indoor decks with a kiosk and large seating area and a grand top deck for great observation spots!

If you’re interested in finding out which whales you can observe in the waters around Iceland and from its shores, you can check out our “Whales of Iceland” article here.

What should I wear on a whale watching tour?

The temperatures on the day of our Elding tour were around 0°C (32°F), so dressing warm was essential! I’ve been on around five whale-watching tours in Iceland, and every tour provider usually offers warm oversuits for layering above your regular street clothing. Being on the open water with strong winds can cool you down quite quickly – even during the summer months – so it’s crucial to be dressed accordingly.

I’d recommend bringing these essentials when you go on a whale-watching tour:

  • Hat, gloves & scarf
  • Warm jacket – or multiple layers underneath a fleece/soft shell jacket
  • Camera
  • Sunglasses
  • Binoculars (if you have some)
whale watching reykjavik, elding, reykjavik from the city, boat
Packed-up in a big oversuit, photo: Alina Maurer
What can I expect on a whale-watching tour?

Usually, you sail out into Faxaflói bay for about an hour to reach the playground of the whales, where they hang about and feed. The boat takes the route past Engey Island, the home of the local Reykjavík puffins! From mid-April to mid-August, you can observe many of the dorky seabirds from the boat and watch them dive for fish!

During the tour, two guides in the crow’s nest, the captain and other fellow crew members, are usually looking out for whales. But everybody is encouraged to keep an eye out for something. When we went on the whale-watching tour with Elding, another guest spotted the first minke whale of the tour – even before the guides! 

When trying to spot these large mammals out in the wide ocean, it is important to keep the “3 B’s rule” in mind:

  • Bodies
  • Blows
  • Birds
Make sure to look out for a flock of birds gathering around a certain spot on the water. This usually indicates that there is food available, meaning that whales will often appear soon after for a breath after indulging in some crustaceans and fish. Blows can be difficult to spot in between waves and ocean foam, but they often reach up to 6 metres in height, depending on the whale, and therefore are another important indicator that a whale is around! The last and most obvious indication is observing the bodies of the whales themselves – if you see something appear and dive down again, it most likely is a whale, a dolphin or a hidden sea monster!
whale watching reykjavik, elding, reykjavik from the city
Reykjavík from Faxaflói bay, photo: Alina Maurer
Dealing with seasickness – Can I still go whale-watching?

While we sailed out, our guide Anna told us some interesting facts about the area, the bay and the surrounding mountains like Esja. During our adventure, the March 16 eruption on the Reykjanes peninsula was still ongoing, and we could see a big pollution plume rise from the eruption site. The sea was quite calm that day, but we still had some bigger waves. 

After a while, a few people on deck got seasick. Elding offers free seasickness pills and peppermint tea for passengers feeling unwell and also recommends staying on deck for fresh air – which helps tremendously. 

If you know you easily get seasick but nevertheless want to head on a whale-watching tour, it is recommended to take medication battling seasickness before the boat ride and also to pick a relatively calm day. I was once on a whale-watching tour in Húsavík, and the sea was so rough that about 90% of the passengers started throwing up – I usually don’t feel any seasickness, but the fact that everybody else was barfing from the railing made me very nauseous and dampened the experience a bit!

lighthouse reykjavik, whale watching reykjavik, elding, reykjavik from the city, boat
minke whale, whale watching reykjavik, elding, reykjavik from the city, boat
whale watching reykjavik, edling
Minke whale, photo: Anna Richter, Elding
Which whales can I see from Reykjavík?

After arriving at the furthest point Elding would sail out to that day in Faxaflói bay, we caught sight of a minke whale continuously coming up to the surface to breathe. It was a truly magnificent sight to see and hear such a huge animal breathe—just metres away from where we stood! Another whale-watching boat from another provider was close by, as all companies work together and tell each other if they spot a whale! You generally don’t need to be worried about what spot on the boat is best for some great whale observations, as the captain usually makes sure to turn the boat around so everybody catches a glimpse. Oftentimes, many people also switch places on the deck according to which side the last whale appeared or even disappear down to the kiosk for a snack. So you don’t need to stress out if all the great spots on deck are already taken when you start the tour!

During our tour, we “only” saw two minke whales and a small pod of harbour porpoises on our way back. What a happy ending to a successful tour! Only a couple of days later, Elding announced on its website that hundreds of individuals had just arrived in Faxaflói bay and that they sighted about 50 humpback whales, 7-8 fin whales, and 8 white-beaked dolphins.

Generally, you can observe humpback whales, minke whales, harbour porpoises, white-beaked dolphins, orcas and very rarely fin and blue whales on whale-watching tours from Reykjavík. You can read more about these species here. Remember that going on a whale-watching tour means being out in nature – which tends to be unpredictable, and you might not see any whales! In that case, Elding offers a complimentary ticket for another whale-watching tour. You can book your own whale-watching experience with Elding via Iceland Review here

whale watching reykjavik, elding, reykjavik from the city, boat
Responsible whale-watching

Elding adheres to the Code of Conduct for responsible whale-watching by IceWhale (The Icelandic Whale Watching Association), a non-profit organisation formed by many Icelandic whale-watching operators. That means that the boats should not spend more than 20-30 minutes with a single individual and stop the propeller within 50 metres of the animal – among other measures.

whale watching reykjavik, elding
photo: Elding, Aleksandra Lechwar

The tour guides always take pictures of the whales sighted to add them to a data bank in Elding’s own established research programme. The images are then used to track and identify whales to research more about the cetacean’s migration routes, behavioural patterns and population numbers. If you are interested, you can also read the daily whale-watching diaries and get the pictures the guides took with their professional camera!

Elding also emphasises the importance of boycotting local restaurants that offer whale meat to their guests and tells them about the fact that whales are still actively hunted in Iceland to this day. If you want to read more about the topic, you can check out our 2023 magazine article about whale hunting in Iceland here. 

Other whale-watching hotspots in Iceland

Generally, going whale-watching from Reykjavík does not hold any disadvantages over other places in Iceland. Personally, I always thought that you could observe more whale species from other places in Iceland, like Húsavík –  the “capital” of whale-watching.

But I’ve also had cases where I observed more whales here in Reykjavík than on tours from Húsavík – so it really depends on the time of year and just luck! If you’re staying in Reykjavík, I can definitely recommend going on a whale-watching tour from the local harbour – and with some luck, you can witness the magnificent ocean wildlife, just like from any other place in Iceland! 

There are numerous whale-watching providers all around Iceland. You can check out other whale-watching tours here and other special tours by Elding, like midnight sun whale-watching or sea-angling tours here.

You can find a complete map of all whale-watching spots around Iceland here:

No Whaling This Summer

Hvalur, whaling company,

Update April 17: At the time of writing, the whaling license is still pending. Kristján Loftsson’s statement to the effect that whaling will not take place this summer is not to be perceived as their lack of intent to whale. Rather, his statements are a critique of government action. It is currently still undecided whether Iceland will resume whaling this summer. Iceland Review apologises for the misleading headline, but presents the original article below, unaltered.

Whales will not be hunted in Icelandic waters this summer, according to Kristján Loftsson, the CEO of Hvalur hf., Iceland’s only whaling operation. “As it stands right now, we have no hope of whaling this summer,” he told Morgunblaðið.

Opposition from the Left-Greens

The company applied to the ministry of food, agriculture and fisheries for a whaling license on January 30. The ministry has not responded and a new minister was appointed last week, Bjarkey Olsen Gunnarsdóttir of the Left-Green Movement. Her fellow party member, Svandís Svavarsdóttir, had been the previous minister and was set to face a vote of no confidence in Alþingi, Iceland’s parliament, for temporarily stopping whaling last summer. The Parliamentary Ombudsman had found that her decision to stop whaling on animal welfare grounds had not been in accordance with the law.

“It’s clear in my mind that the ministry under the leadership of the Left-Greens is disregarding the conclusion of the Parliamentary Ombudsman and continues methodically on its mission of destroying this industry, even though it’s operating on legal grounds,” Kristján said. “When we don’t know if a license will be issued we can’t start hiring people and buying supplies, which is a necessary prerequisite for whaling.”

Controversial practice

Kristján added that the ministry had only been willing to issue a license for one year at a time and was asking the company to clarify if and how it adhered to certain stipulations in laws and regulations. The company has requested damages for the shortened whaling season of last summer.

Whaling remains a controversial practice in Iceland and is protested both domestically and abroad.

Activists Climb Masts of Hvalur Vessels

hvalur whale demonstration reykjavík

Early this morning, two activists climbed into the masts of Hvalur 8 and Hvalur 9 to oppose the lifting of the whaling ban. As of the time of writing, they continue to occupy the masts.

One activist named Eliza occupies Hvalur 8. Vísir states that she is associated with Sea Shepherd and its founder, Paul Watson, but is here independently. The other activist, one Anahita Babaei, occupies Hvalur 9 and has previously participated in demonstrations here in Iceland against whaling with the filmmaker Micah Garen.

A special unit of police and the fire department were quick to the scene. An aerial work platform was quickly deployed and authorities spoke with Anahita, who refused to come down. According to Micah Garen in an interview with Vísir, authorities confiscated Anahita’s supplies that she had taken with her, including food and water.

Given the recent lifting of the whaling ban in Iceland, the two Havlur ships were scheduled to begin their hunting season soon. Many activists have opposed the government’s decision to allow the whale hunt again. Prominent voices have included international media figures and True North, an Icelandic film production company.

In a post on social media, Anahita provided the following statement:

“My name is Anahita Babaei and I am part of the growing group of people here in Iceland that is against whaling. We are doing what we can to stop these ships from leaving the harbor and kill up to 209 fin whales. Right now I am in the mast of Hvalur 9 where I will be staying for as long as I can to stop the ships from going out to sea. The reason why I am doing this is not to cause trouble for anyone directly apart from the owners of Hvalur hf. I understand though that my actions will affect other groups of people indirectly, and to them I would like to apologize in advance. The actions of the owners of Hvalur hf affect many people and so action against them will also do the same. If a law is unjust, one is not only right to disobey it, one is obliged to do so. #stopwhaling now.”

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All Hands Still on Deck at Hvalur

whaling in iceland

Despite the temporary whaling ban, Hvalur hf., the only company to whale in Iceland, has not let any of its crew go. Kristján Loftsson explained the situation in a recent interview with Morgunblaðið.

Minister of Food and Agriculture Svandís Svavarsdóttir announced a temporary halt to whaling this summer which took effect June 20, the day before this year’s whale hunt was set to begin. The ban is valid until September 1. Many critiqued the last-minute nature of the announcement at the time, citing concerns of job loss.

Read more: Protest Job Loss Due to Whaling Ban

“No one has been let go due to the whale hunting ban. Those who had started or were just about to start are all still employed with us, and we are preparing ourselves to begin the hunting on September 1st,” Kristján stated to Morgunblaðið. Hvalur had promised employment to around 100 crew members for this year’s hunting season.

“People are finding other tasks to keep busy with,” he continued. “We were fully prepared in the spring, but there’s always room for improvement. At least it won’t be worse now than in the spring.”

Kristján also acknowledged that the whaling ban has been somewhat costly, “about as expensive as one might expect.”

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Sea Change

whaling in iceland

Last spring, journalists and activists gathered in a quiet fjord an hour’s drive north of Reykjavík. There was a small harbour, but no fishermen bringing in the day’s catch. For what these guys were fishing, they needed a bigger boat. The whaling ships of Hvalur were preparing for a season of fin whale hunting, planning […]

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