Whaling: animal rights groups slam Iceland's 'devastating' decision to resume controversial practice

Iceland is one of just three countries in the world still taking part in the controversy-ridden practice of commercial whaling

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Iceland's government has lifted its ban on commercial whaling, with animal rights groups slamming the decision as "shameful" and devastating for global marine conservation efforts.

The temporary ban was imposed in June on animal welfare grounds, and ended this week. The authorities have ruled the practice can now continue, albeit with stricter requirements on hunting methods and increased supervision.

Iceland’s Food and Veterinary Authority estimated in a May report that 67% of the 58 whales caught by boats it monitored died or lost consciousness quickly or immediately, but others sometimes experienced prolonged deaths. It said 14 whales had to be shot more than once, and two were shot four times before they died.

Following the report’s publication, a group of official experts looked at ways to reduce “irregularities” during whale hunting. They concluded this week that “it is possible to improve the methods used for the hunting of large whales” and improve animal welfare, according to a government statement.

Whalers cut open a 35-tonne Fin whale caught aboard a Hvalur boat off the western coast of Iceland. (Photo: HALLDOR KOLBEINS/AFP via Getty Images)Whalers cut open a 35-tonne Fin whale caught aboard a Hvalur boat off the western coast of Iceland. (Photo: HALLDOR KOLBEINS/AFP via Getty Images)
Whalers cut open a 35-tonne Fin whale caught aboard a Hvalur boat off the western coast of Iceland. (Photo: HALLDOR KOLBEINS/AFP via Getty Images)

The Ministry of Food, Agriculture and Fisheries said new regulations will include stricter requirements for hunting equipment and methods. The Food and Veterinary Authority and the Directorate of Fisheries will work together to supervise whale hunting, it added.

WWF's protecting whales and dolphins lead Chris Johnson said resuming commercial whaling was "a step in the wrong direction" for Iceland.

“Fin whales are the second largest animal on Earth, classified as vulnerable by the IUCN, and are found in all major oceans from tropical to polar regions," he said. “Growing scientific evidence shows large whales benefit ocean productivity and sequester carbon throughout their lives."

The North Pacific's fin whales have long migrations, "so these benefits are crucial to multiple nations and the high seas. By protecting whales, we protect our oceans and ourselves".

Mr Johnson added that only a single whaling company, Hvalur, remains operational in the country. Its permit to hunt fin whales is set to expire in December 2023, but there was growing concern that this decision will put the longer-term phasing-out of whaling into question.

“There is still an opportunity for Iceland to make the right decision and cease commercial whaling at the end of 2023 aligning with the international community and the International Whaling Commission's global moratorium on commercial whaling. We have a collective responsibility to safeguard fin whales for future generations."

Humane Society International, an animal welfare advocacy group, also condemned the move as a “devastating” rejection of an opportunity to “do the right thing”.

“There is simply no way to make harpooning whales at sea anything other than cruel and bloody, and no amount of modifications will change that,” said executive director Ruud Tombrock told the Associated Press.

Climate campaigner and filmmaker Micah Garen, who directed a documentary called The Last Whaling Station, said "hardly anyone" eats whale meat in Iceland. "People don’t want this, people don’t want the killing of these animals."

He and others are considering taking legal action to block the practice. “This is bad for Iceland, it’s bad for the planet,” Mr Garen said.

The species most commonly hunted in Iceland are fin whales, the world’s second largest whale species behind blue whales, according to the International Whaling Commission. The Commission imposed a ban on commercial whaling in the 1980s due to dwindling stocks.

Iceland left the IWC in 1992, but returned in 2002 with a reservation to the ban. It allowed commercial whaling to resume in 2006.

Along with Norway and Japan, Iceland is one of the only countries still practising commercial whaling.

AP reports the country has annual quotas for the fin whales and minke whales fishermen are allowed to hunt in its waters. Iceland exports most of its whale meat to Japan.