Whaling Company Seeks 10-Year License

Whaling ships

Iceland’s only whaling operation, Hvalur hf., has applied for a license to hunt fin whales. The company is seeking a five to ten year license from the Ministry of Food, Agriculture and Fisheries, Heimildin reports, arguing that this would create “normal predictability” for the company’s operations.

No company has had an active whaling license since the beginning 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 in January 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).

Current law allows for whaling

Hvalur’s application was submitted at the end of January and the ministry is looking to process it as soon as possible. The company first received a whaling license in 1947 when a law on whaling was passed and has operated sporadically since. The law was passed “to secure the protection, development and maximum utilisation of the whale resource”, with consideration to the interests of “the consumers of whale products”.

In January, Svandís said that an independent party would be tasked with reviewing the legislation and administration of whaling. Hvalur hf., however, argues that the application must be processed according to current law and with speed, as preparations for the summer whaling season are underway. Svandís is now on medical leave, with Prime Minister Katrín Jakobsdóttir responsible for her duties in the meantime.

Deep North News: Counting Birds, Hunting Whales, Corruption And More!

In this episode of Deep North News, we report on some good news for disaster preparedness. Last month’s eruptions near Grindavík has motivated Parliament to set up a special fund to deal with sudden catastrophes, but it may take some time yet before it can be established.

In other news, we report on how fin whale hunters and the government are at odds, corruption in Iceland, the annual bird count, plus weather, road conditions and much more!

Deep North News 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!

Hvalur Seeks Whaling License Renewal Amid Legal Claim

Whaling ships

Hvalur hf. has requested a five-year renewal of its whaling licence, highlighting its constitutionally protected employment rights. The company emphasises its advancements in whaling technology and methods, expecting a prompt decision on its application.

Claim filed against the Icelandic state

Last week, Hvalur hf., Iceland’s only active whaling company, filed a claim against the Icelandic state, citing significant financial losses due to a temporary whaling ban imposed by the Minister of Food, Agriculture, and Fisheries, Svandís Svavarsdóttir last year.

The claim, supported by the Parliamentary Ombudsman’s conclusion that the ban lacked legal basis, seeks compensation for the company and its employees. The ban took effect on June 20, 2023, and remained in place until September 1 of the same year.

Read More: Sea Change (from Iceland Review magazine)

In addition to the lawsuit, Hvalur hf. has also filed for a renewal of its whaling licence for the next five years, with a formal request having been sent to the Ministry of Food and Agriculture yesterday, Mbl.is reports.

In the request, Hvalur hf. refers to the aforementioned opinion by the Parliamentary Ombudsman, emphasising the company’s constitutional employment rights, a freedom that can only be restricted by parliamentary legislation.

As noted by Mbl.is, Hvalur maintains that the company has worked on and invested in the development and improvement of whaling equipment and methods, based on technological innovations and advancements in the field. “This work has led to significant and positive changes in the last whaling season,” the application claims.

The company expects a prompt response to their licence renewal application.

Hvalur Files Claim Against Icelandic State Over Whaling Ban

Iceland whaling Hvalur hf

The whaling company Hvalur hf. has filed a claim against the Icelandic state, citing significant financial losses due to a temporary whaling ban imposed by the Minister of Food, Agriculture, and Fisheries, Svandís Svavarsdóttir last year. The claim, supported by the Parliamentary Ombudsman’s conclusion that the ban lacked legal basis, seeks compensation for the company and its employees.

A right to claim damages

The whaling company Hvalur hf. has filed a claim against the Icelandic state, asserting that the decision to temporarily ban the hunting of fin whales last year — which was made by Minister of Food, Agriculture, and Fisheries, Svandís Svavarsdóttir — had resulted in substantial revenue loss and financial expenditures, RÚV reports.

The claim was sent to the State’s Attorney after the Parliamentary Ombudsman concluded that the decision by the Minister of Food, Agriculture and Fisheries to temporarily suspend whaling last year was not legally sound; Svandís’s ban took effect on June 20, 2023, and remained in place until September 1 of the same year.

In line with the Ombudsman’s findings

The claim begins by noting that Hvalur hf. had lodged a complaint with the Parliamentary Ombudsman regarding the drafting and implementation of regulation that barred the start of whaling in the summer of 2023. The claim subsequently cites the Ombudsman’s opinion on the matter, wherein the former concluded that the Minister of Food, Agriculture, and Fisheries lacked a sufficiently clear legal basis for the regulation to be considered valid.

In light of this, Hvalur hf. believes it has a right to claim damages from the Icelandic state for any financial losses incurred due to the ban. The claim acknowledges that any costs saved while the ban was active, particularly in labour expenses, should be considered for deduction.

The claim further notes that the Akranes Trade Union (Verkalýðsfélag Akraness) had declared that the employees of Hvalur had wage claims against the company for the period during which the ban was in effect. Similarly, the Association of Ship Captains (Félag skipstjórnamanna) voiced the same position for its union members.

Therefore, Hvalur considers it most practical for the Icelandic state to compensate the company’s employees and other affected parties in line with their income losses. The claim also asks for talks with the Icelandic state to settle this compensation based on the stated reasons.

Third-party assessment

Lastly, the claim suggests that the Icelandic state and Hvalur could agree on a third party to evaluate the company’s damages through an out-of-court expert assessment. However, this agreement would not be legally binding for either Hvalur or the Icelandic state.

Government Coalition Parties Polling at an All-Time Low

government coalition

The three government coalition parties are polling at a combined 32.6% according to a new survey by Maskína. The Independence Party is polling at 16.6%, its weakest showing of all time since Maskína began conducting polls, while the Prime Minister Katrín Jakobsdóttir’s party, the Left-Green Movement, is in danger of losing all its MPs from Alþingi, Iceland’s Parliament.

The poll was conducted from January 10 to 15, around the time the volcanic eruption by Grindavík took place, but before Independence Party chairman Bjarni Benediktsson made remarks about asylum seeker policy which have been interpreted as a policy shift for his party, Heimildin reports. Alþingi elections are scheduled for next year.

Coalition tested

The Left-Green Movement is polling at 5.7%, which would make it the smallest of the parties that now have seats in Alþingi. The third coalition member, the Progressive Party, is polling at 10.3%, well below the 17.3% it received in the 2021 election. In the election, the three parties received a combined 54.4% of the vote, but according to the poll, less than a third of voters would choose one of the coalition parties.

Alþingi reconvened this Monday after a Christmas break and a number of issues have tested the strength of the coalition, including whaling, policy on asylum seekers, and the question of how the residents of Grindavík can best be served in the wake of an eruption that did significant infrastructural damage to the town.

Social democrats in the lead

The Centre Party, however, is rising in the polls, with 11.8% support. The Social Democratic Alliance remains the leader in the polls with 25.7% like it has been for more than a year. Since electing a new chairperson, Kristrún Frostadóttir, the party has soared above its 2021 election result, when it received only 9.9% support.

The Reform Party is polling at 11.7%, up from 8.3% in the election. Two of the opposition parties have lost support since the election. The Pirate Party is polling at 7.6%, while the People’s Party is at 6.5%.

Embattled Minister on Medical Leave

Svandís Svavarsdóttir

Svandís Svavarsdóttir, minister of food, agriculture, and fisheries, announced yesterday that she is on medical leave. In a Facebook post, she divulged that yesterday morning she received a diagnosis of breast cancer and will undergo surgery and treatment in the coming weeks.

“I face this challenge upright, serene, and optimistic,” she wrote. “All my efforts will go towards this with my people by my side.”

Vote of no confidence withdrawn

As Alþingi reconvened today, Svandís was set to face a vote of no confidence. The Alþingi Ombudsman concluded earlier this month that the decision made by Svandís last summer to temporarily stop whaling was not in accordance with the law. She had announced her decision in June due to an “unequivocal” opinion on animal welfare produced by the Icelandic Food and Veterinary Authority (MAST). She argued that in light of the opinion, she would have no choice but to postpone the start of whaling season.

Svandís, a member of the Left-Green Movement, has faced heavy criticism from MPs of the Independence Party, her coalition partners. The CEO of Iceland’s only whale hunting operation had threatened to sue for damages caused by the shorter whaling season. The hunting of whales remains a controversial practice in Iceland and has been protested by several local and international animal rights groups.

Inga Sæland, chairperson of the People’s Party, had only just submitted the motion of no confidence when Svandís announced her diagnosis. Her party started the process of withdrawing the motion right away. “This is shocking,” Inga told Vísir. “Terrible news. It wouldn’t be in good taste to vote on a person who’s not present in Alþingi to defend herself. She’s a hard working woman. I wish her the very best. She’ll battle this with serenity.”

Prime Minister Katrín Jakobsdóttir will act as minister in Svandís’ stead during her medical leave.

Grindavík, Palestine, and Whaling Questions Loom in Alþingi

Alþingi parliament of Iceland

Alþingi, Iceland’s Parliament, will convene at 3pm today for the first time since before the holidays. The first item on the docket is Grindavík, but Vísir reports that the cabinet of ministers will also convene today to discuss and subsequently announce how the residents of Grindavík can be best served in the wake of an eruption that did significant infrastructural damage to the town.

Although the topic of Grindavík looms large over Alþingi’s agenda, there are a number of highly debated issues likely to be brought up during today’s scheduled ministers’ question time. Opposition members have criticised Foreign Minister Bjarni Benediktsson after his recent comments on Palestinian asylum seekers and their protests outside of Alþingi. Furthermore, a vote of no confidence is likely to be brought up against Minister of Food, Agriculture, and Fisheries Svandís Svavarsdóttir for violating the law when she temporarily stopped whaling last summer.

Coalition solidarity in question

These topics and others have tested the strength of the government coalition in the last few weeks. The coalition is comprised of the Progressive Party, the Left-Green Movement, and the Independence Party, with the latter two clashing on a number of issues. Independence Party MPs have been highly critical of Left-Green Movement Minister Svandís’ handling of the whaling issue and a vote of no confidence from opposition MP and People’s Party leader Inga Sæland will force them to pick sides. Vísir has also reported on a rumour swirling among MPs that the category of whaling will be moved from Svandís’ ministry to the Ministry of the Environment, Energy, and Climate, thus taking it from her hands. This would give control of whaling policy to Independence Party member Guðlaugur Þór Þórðarson.

On the other hand, the opposition is likely to test the Left-Greens’ allegiance to the coalition by bringing up Independence Party Leader Bjarni’s comments on asylum seekers and his calls for stricter border controls and increased police powers. Palestinian protesters have been camped outside of Alþingi since December 27. The group has made three demands of Icelandic authorities. Firstly, to carry out family reunifications for residents of Gaza whom they have already granted visas. Secondly, a meeting with the Minister for Foreign Affairs, the Minister of Justice, and the Minister of Social Affairs and the Labour Market. Thirdly, to stop the ongoing deportations of Palestinian people in Iceland and grant them international protection.

Calls for Grindavík buy-out

The Grindavík topic, however, remains the most urgent one. As reported, two lava fissures opened up near Grindavík, on the south coast of the Reykjanes peninsula, on January 14. Lava flow from these combined fissures caused interruptions in electricity and both cold and hot water, damaged the shortest route to the capital area, and set three houses on fire. Ground swelling and related seismic activity has also done widespread damage in the form of crevasses.

While Grindavík had been evacuated of its residents the day before, they now face an uncertain future regarding what steps the government should now take. Most residents of a recent community meeting want to be bought out, and for others, they would like to see the government take steps to ensure that their housing loans do not spiral out of control with the cost of maintaining property in the town.

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.

Decision on Whaling Broke Law

Svandís Svavarsdóttir

The decision made last summer by Minister of Food, Agriculture and Fisheries Svandís Svavarsdóttir to stop whaling was not in accordance with the law, the Alþingi Ombudsman has concluded. The conclusion is likely to threaten Svandís’ position as minister and possibly the coalition government as a whole.

Svandís announced in June that she would temporarily stop whaling due to an “unequivocal” opinion on animal welfare produced by the Icelandic Food and Veterinary Authority (MAST). She argued that in light of the opinion, she would have no choice but to postpone the start of whaling season. The hunting of whales remains a controversial practice in Iceland and has been protested by several local and international animal rights groups.

Whaler sues for damages

Kristján Loftsson, the CEO of Iceland’s only active whaling operation, Hvalur hf., told Morgunblaðið that he would sue for damages. “She lets her own political views guide her with no regard for other interests if they don’t align with hers,” Kristján said of Svandís after the Ombudsman published their conclusion. “Of course Hvalur will ask for compensation because of the enormous harm that’s come to the company and its staff.”

Svandís’ decision last summer was met with fierce opposition by her coalition partners in the Independence Party. Svandís is a member of the Left-Green Movement, who along with the Progressive Party, make up the coalition government spanning from centre-left to centre-right. Mbl.is reports that MPs from the Independence Party are already speculating on the possibility that she will be forced to resign or offered a similar route to Independence Party leader Bjarni Benediktsson. Last fall, the Ombudsman issued a conclusion criticising Bjarni’s handling of the March 2022 sale of Íslandsbanki as Minister of Finance, in which a group of “qualified investors” were given priority to purchase bank shares. Among these qualified investors was Benedikt Sveinsson, Bjarni’s father. Bjarni then swapped ministries with fellow party member Þórdís Kolbrún Reykfjörð Gylfadóttir and became Minister of Foreign Affairs. Some expect Svandís to swap ministries in this way or else risk the future of the coalition.

Svandís told Mbl.is that she has not considered resigning and that the Ombudsman’s conclusion will help guide future policy-making on whaling.

2023 in Review: Nature

Grindavík earthquakes crevasse

As the year draws to a close, Iceland Review brings you a summary of the biggest stories in community, culture, and nature in 2023. Here are some of the biggest nature-related stories from the year, which included two volcanic eruptions in Reykjanes.

Grindavík Evacuated

It has been a time of upheaval for the Southwest Iceland town of Grindavík (pop. 3,600), which was evacuated on November 10 amid powerful seismic activity. This was the first time since 1973 that an Icelandic town has been evacuated (or ever since the eruption on the Westman Islands). Earthquakes and the formation of a magma dike under the town opened crevasses and damaged roads, homes, and infrastructure in and around Grindavík.

Read More: Out of Harm´s Way (The Evacuation of Grindavík)

In early December, it appeared that magma had stopped flowing into the dike and experts believed that an eruption was less likely. However, they warned that the seismic events could repeat over the coming months, with magma flowing into the dike once more and threatening Grindavík. While the town’s evacuation order was in effect, Grindavík residents were permitted to enter the town to retrieve belongings and maintain their homes and properties. Some businesses in the town have also restarted operations.

Volcanic Eruption Near Sýlingarfell

On the night of December 18, following weeks of waning seismic activity, and with some Grindavík residents complaining about the evacuation orders remaining in effect, a powerful volcanic eruption began near the town of Grindavík and by Mt. Sýlingarfell. The eruption occurred along a 4 km long fissure and the magma flow was much greater when compared to the previous three eruptions that had occurred on the Reykjanes peninsula over the past three years. Construction workers rushed to fill in gaps in the protective barriers by the Svartsengi Power Station. Fortunately, the lava did not damage infrastructure, although it could have threatened the Grindavíkurvegur road if it had continued flowing.

The eruption was short-lived, fortunately, and by December 21, it appeared that volcanic activity had completely ceased.

On December 22, the authorities announced the lifting of the evacuation orders, starting December 23. A handful of residents chose to return and spend Christmas at home; however, many residents, contending that it was still not safe to stay in town, chose to remain in temporary housing outside of Grindavík. The government had previously announced that it would extend housing support throughout the winter for Grindavík residents (the government had also secured additional housing through rental companies).

With land uplift having continued near the Svartsengi Power Station, experts believe that further volcanic activity is likely in the future.

Eruption at Litli-Hrútur

Starting July 4, 2023, a significant increase in seismic activity on the Reykjanes peninsula led to over 12,000 earthquakes near the area where two volcanic eruptions had occurred in 2021 and 2022 respectively. This seismic activity eventually culminated in a powerful eruption on July 10 near Litli-Hrútur. The eruption was strong: ten times more lava flow than the previous two eruptions. The eruption initially featured multiple fissures extending over 1 km and a very high lava flow rate, but it soon settled into a single fissure with a steadily growing cone.

Read More: Live, Laugh, Lava (the Litli-Hrútur Eruption)

Given how dry it had been, the eruption set off multiple wildfires, which kept firefighters working around the clock. Once again, the eruption, which was relatively brief, proved highly popular among tourists; volcanic activity ceased on August 5.

Whaling Season Postponed

On June 20, Svandís Svavarsdóttir, the Minister of Food, Agriculture, and Fisheries, announced that she would be postponing the start of the fin-whale hunting season until August 31. The decision followed on the heels of a report authored by a council of specialists on animal welfare, which found that the methods employed in the hunting of whales did not comply with the Act on Animal Welfare.

Read More: Sea Change (Has Iceland Seen Its Last Whaling Season?)

After much clamour from anti-whaling activists around the world, the Minister did not extend the temporary postponement of the whaling season, which commenced on September 6. The ships of Iceland´s only whaling company, Hvalur hf., were, however, subjected to increased surveillance and stricter regulations set by the Minister of Fisheries in September. Charges were pressed against two activists, who had climbed into the crow´s nests of two of Hvalur´s whaling vessels to protest.

Sea-Lice in Tálknafjörður, the Great Escape — More Controversy Surrounding Salmon Farming

On August 20, approximately 3,500 farm-raised salmon escaped through two holes on an open-pen fish farm operated by Arctic Fish in Patreksfjörður, a fjord in Iceland’s Westfjords. Arctic Fish had not inspected the condition of the pens for 95 days.

In September, the Icelandic Food and Veterinary Authority (MAST), confirmed that 26 farmed salmon traced to the escape in Patreksfjörður had been caught in several fishing rivers in West and North Iceland. By October, the Federation of Icelandic River Owners claimed that 344 farmed salmon had been captured in 46 different locations. In response to the escape, the Directorate of Fisheries announced that it would provisionally extend the angling season until mid-November to increase the chances of farmed salmon being caught (teams of Norwegian divers were dispatched to aid in the capture of the escaped fish).

Read More: Balancing the Scales (Do the Costs of Fish Farming in Iceland Outweigh the Benefits?)

On October 7, a protest against salmon farming in open-net pens was held on Austurvöllur Square in Reykjavík. Less than a month later, Heimildin reported that at least one million salmon had perished or had been discarded due to an uncontrollable outbreak of sea lice in Tálknafjörður in the southern Westfjords. Speaking to Heimildin, Karl Steinar Óskarsson, Head of the Aquaculture Department at the Icelandic Food and Veterinary Authority (MAST), stated that “no one had seen a sea lice infestation spread like this before.”

New Climate Report Published

In September, a report titled “Climate Resilient Iceland” (i.e. Loftslagsþolið Ísland in Icelandic) was unveiled. Commissioned by the Minister of the Environment, Energy, and Climate, a steering committee produced the report to assess the necessary measures for society to adapt to climate change, emphasising that the impacts of climate change are already evident.

Read More: In Due Force (Unprecedented Mudslides)

According to the report, altered weather patterns, increased landslides, and heightened flood risks are among the challenges Icelanders will face in the coming years. When asked whether emphasising adaptation to climate change signified a form of resignation, Anna Hulda Ólafsdóttir, Office Manager of Climate Services and Adaptation at the Icelandic Meteorological Office and a co-author of the report, replied, “Yes and no; this is the reality we are facing. It’s unfortunate, but it’s the truth. Humans have always adapted to changing circumstances.”