Minister to Face Vote of No Confidence

Minister of Health Svandís Svavarsdóttir

Svandís Svarsdóttir, minister of food, agriculture and fisheries, will face a vote of no confidence next week when Alþingi, Iceland’s Parliament, reconvenes after Easter break. Chairperson of the People’s Party, Inga Sæland, has announced that she will file the motion, Vísir reports.

Svandís returns from sick leave tomorrow. She announced on her Facebook page that she is feeling good following treatment for breast cancer that she was diagnosed with in January.

Previous motion withdrawn

Svandís was set to face a motion of no confidence when she went on sick leave in January, but Inga withdrew the motion in light of the circumstances. The Alþingi Ombudsman had concluded that Svandís’ decision last summer to temporarily stop whaling had not been in accordance with law. The CEO of Hvalur, Iceland’s only whale hunting company, had threatened to sue for damages due to last year’s shortened whaling season. She’s also faced criticism from MPs of the Independence Party, a government coalition partner of her party, the Left-Green Movement.

Controversial whaling decision

“The vote of no confidence is still pending, we’re just waiting for her to be present to defend it,” Inga said. She’s said that her motion is a result of Svandís breaking the law and has nothing to do with whaling as a practice, adding that Svandís had overreached when she temporarily stopped whaling.

The hunting of whales in Iceland remains a controversial practice and is the subject of protest both domestically and abroad.

No Active Whaling Licenses in Iceland

Whaling ships

No Icelandic company has an active whaling license and no applications for one have been submitted to the Ministry of Food, Agriculture and Fisheries, Heimildin reports. The only active whaling company in recent years, Hvalur hf., saw their five-year license expire at the start of the year.

The hunting of whales remains a controversial practice in Iceland and has been protested by several local and international animal rights groups. The Alþingi Ombudsman concluded last week that Minister Svandís Svavarsdóttir did not act in accordance with the law when she temporarily stopped whaling last summer. Svandís announced in June that she would postpone the start of whaling season due to an “unequivocal” opinion on animal welfare produced by the Icelandic Food and Veterinary Authority (MAST).

Vote of no confidence expected

Svandís, a prominent member of the Left-Green Movement, has come under fire by coalition partners and the opposition because of the Ombudsman’s conclusion. She has said that she has not considered resigning as minister. In the RÚV political panel show Silfrið last night, MPs from coalition members the Independence Party and the Progressive Party did not say if they would support her if a motion of no confidence is introduced in Alþingi. Opposition MPs from the People’s Party and the Social Democratic Alliance said that it would not be in their interest to back Svandís up if such a vote comes to pass when Alþingi reconvenes. Centre Party Leader, Sigmundur Davíð Gunnlaugsson, has announced that his party will introduce such a motion, Morgunblaðið reports.

The last whaling license was granted to Hvalur hf. in 2019 when a minister from the Independence Party was in charge of the issue. When the shortened whaling season eventually began in August last year, Hvalur went on to catch 24 fin whales. Kristján Loftsson, the CEO of Hvalur hf., has said that he will sue for damages for the delay.

Future of whaling unclear

Andrés Ingi Jónsson, MP for the Pirate Party, introduced a bill in Alþingi last year to ban whaling. It has not come to a vote, but has received 3,500 reviews from the public and advocacy groups, 2,000 more than have ever been submitted on any other policy issue. It is unclear whether the ministry would grant a new whaling license with Svandís in charge. She has said that the legislation on the issue needs updating and that the Ombudsman’s conclusion will help guide future policy-making on whaling.

Activists Descend from Whaling Ships, Engines Turn Over

Protest

Two activists who had perched atop the masts of whaling boats in Reykjavík Harbor for over 24 hours descended from the vessels this afternoon. Fishers with the whaling company Hvalur told Vísir that whale hunting would likely begin later in the day.

Oppose lifting of the whaling ban

Early yesterday morning, activists Anahita Babaei and Elissa Bijou climbed into the masts of whaling ships Hvalur 8 and Hvalur 9 to oppose the lifting of the whaling ban. As of this morning, they had surpassed a full day of protest at Reykjavík Harbour.

Samuel Rostøls, a Norwegian activist supporting the cause, told RÚV this morning that the police had yet to make any efforts since last night to remove the women from their precarious positions in the ships’ crow’s nests, which barely offer enough space to stand. The protesters had braved chilly temperatures throughout the night.

Valgerður Árnadóttir, Chair of Stop Whaling in Iceland (i.e. Hvalavinir), was on-site until yesterday evening. Speaking to RÚV this morning, Valgerður expressed growing concern for the protesters, particularly one who has been without food and water. She noted that multiple efforts to provide water or establish phone contact had been unsuccessful.

“It has now been 25 hours since she last had access to water, and despite multiple attempts to engage with the police, they have refused to provide her with water or check on her condition,” Valgerður stated earlier today. A police officer told Vísir this morning that the activists would only receive food and water if they descended from the ships.

Ambulance en route

An ambulance left for the Ægisgarður wharf this morning, RÚV reports. As noted above, concerns had escalated regarding Elissa Bijou’s health; she had remained without water or other supplies since police confiscated her backpack, which also contained vital medication, yesterday.

The scene was heavily patrolled with a force of ten to twelve police officers distributed across the whaling vessels, in addition to two marked police cars stationed on-site. Friends and supporters of the activists assembled at the harbour. Some maintained a vigil through the night.

Update: The police have turned the ambulance around, maintaining that the protestors had declined medical assistance, which they would be granted upon descending from the vessels.

No whaling today on account of the weather

Kristján Loftsson, CEO of Hvalur hf, told RÚV this morning that regardless of the protests, Hvalur’s whaling ships would most likely remain moored today due to the weather. Kristján questioned whether foreign protesters should have an influence on whether whales were caught off the coast of Iceland or not.

“Civil disobedience? What’s the origin of that concept? Should these people be allowed to seize power? It’s overbearing behaviour and pushy entitlement. And then they want food delivered – where does this end?”

Activists descend after 33 hours

After 33 hours atop the whaling vessels, Anahita and Elissa descended from the crow’s nests at just past 2 PM. They were subsequently taken away in police vehicles. As noted by Vísir, a few police officers remain at the scene and will likely stay there until the whaling ships depart for fishing, to ensure that other protestors do not encroach upon the vessels.

This article was updated at 15:40

Minister’s Temporary Whaling Ban Could Be Extended

Iceland whaling Hvalur hf

Minister Svandís Svavarsdóttir’s temporary ban on whaling may be extended, Mbl.is reports. A ministry-organised working group is assessing the compliance of whaling with animal welfare and whaling laws.

Temporary ban announced

On June 20, Svandís Svavarsdóttir, the Minister of Food, Agriculture, and Fisheries, announced a temporary halt to the hunting of fin whales until August 31. The decision was prompted by a specialist council’s report revealing non-compliance with the Act on Animal Welfare.

Mbl.is reports a ministry-organised working group will assess the compliance of whaling with animal welfare and whaling laws in the coming weeks: “From the time that regulation no. 642/​2023 was enacted, the ministry has deliberated on refining hunting methods and equipment for large whales to align with Act No. 55/2013 and Act No. 26/1949,” the Ministry’s answer reads.

The working group, following its assessment, is expected to offer alternatives or potential solutions to the ministry, indicating that the “temporary” ban might be extended if the group determines that current whaling practices can’t meet animal welfare laws.

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.