OAboard a small whale-watching boat as it cruises through the choppy waters of Faxaflói Bay off the southwest coast of Iceland, a guide urges tourists not to eat whale meat. “We have a campaign here against whaling,” says Estelle, who has spotted whales and dolphins from the boat. “It’s better to meet them in person than to eat them.”
Iceland, one of the few countries in the world to hunt whales commercially, announced in February its intention to end the practice from 2024, although it has not yet officially banned it.
Falling demand for whale meat, especially since Japan resumed commercial whaling in 2019, influenced the decision. “There is little evidence that this activity has any economic benefit,” Svandís Svavarsdóttir, the country’s fisheries minister, wrote in the Morgunblaðið newspaper. But experts also credit a 15-year campaign led largely by Icelanders and local whale-watching companies.
Whaling has been practiced around Iceland since the early 1600s, but it wasn’t until the 19th century that steamships and explosive harpoons allowed American and European companies to hunt animals at large scale.
Iceland stopped commercial whaling in 1985 and scientific whaling four years later as part of the international moratorium on commercial whaling. But commercial whaling resumed in 2006. Current annual quotas allow for the killing of 209 fin whales in Iceland, to be sent to Japan, as well as 217 minke whales, which are consumed in the country.
Since the practice restarted, an association of local whale-watching businesses, led by the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) and IceWhale, has fought to end it. Their campaign aimed to turn the tide of whaling in Iceland using the slogan “meet us, don’t eat us”.
Contrary to what many visitors think, the whale is not considered a delicacy by Icelanders, says Arni Finnsson, president of the Icelandic Nature Conservation Association, which worked on the campaign. Only 2% of Icelanders say they consume it regularly, according to IFAW.
Instead, the biggest eaters of minke whales have been the country’s roughly 2 million annual visitors, many of whom believe it to be an Icelandic specialty. “We had tourists seeing whales and then asking where they could go to eat them,” says Megan Whittaker, chief naturalist at Elding, a whale watching organization.
A plan has been drawn up by IFAW and IceWhale to end this practice. In 2009, the IWAF launched one of the most successful petitions in the country, which now has nearly 175,000 signatories, asking people to sign a declaration that they would not eat whale meat.
As early as 2011, the campaign sent volunteers in restaurants, asking them to stop serving the animal, and more than 60 restaurants are now labeled “whale friendly”. The campaign reduced tourists’ consumption of whale meat in Iceland by three-quarters, according to IFAW, which says it regularly surveys tourists.
“Meet us, don’t eat us” has had a big influence on the government’s approach to whaling, says Belén García Ovide, founder of Ocean Missions, an Icelandic nonprofit organization not involved in whaling. the countryside. “[Politicians] realized that a live whale brings more economic benefits than a dead whale,” she says.
Whale watching has become a booming business. One in five tourists to Iceland take a whale-watching trip, generating around $12m (£9m) a year, according to the Animal Fund.
Tour operators have played an important role in the campaign to end whaling. “All of us whale-watching companies have been like propaganda,” says Gísli Ólafsson, owner of Lakitours, which operates in Iceland’s west fjords. His tour guides have been talking about whaling on every trip for decades, he says.
Companies also fought to evict whalers from Faxaflói Bay, which was one of the main hunting areas. “We always saw the whalers,” says Whittaker. “We have seen the [dead] whales tied to the edge of the boat and dragged. And we talked to tourists about it.
In 2017, the fisheries minister announced an expanded “no-whaling zone”, forcing hunters further out to sea, where there are fewer whales, making the practice economically unviable.
When Japan resumed commercial whaling in 2019, demand for Icelandic whales declined. Whale meat processing plants have also been unable to operate normally during the pandemic.
Conservationists are now exploring ways to make whale tourism sustainable. Whale-watching companies have created a code of conduct, including pledging not to make sudden noises, as well as approaching animals gradually and taking turns with other boats.
But there is no legal obligation to follow this voluntary code, as is the case in other whale watching destinations, such as New Zealand or Canada. Ovid wants politicians to change that.
Scientists study whether whales are stressed by tourist boats, by measuring their cortisol levels and monitoring their behavior. The research, conducted by the charity Whale Wise in partnership with the University of Edinburgh and the University of Iceland, could lead to updates to the current code of conduct, says Whale co-founder Tom Grove Wise.
“I view whale watching as a fundamentally good thing,” Grove says. “But it’s about making it the best it can be and as sustainable as possible.”
There are still some who are against the plan to end whaling. Kristján Loftsson, owner of Hvalur, a family business that has led fin whale hunting for decades, told the Guardian he wanted to continue as long as it was legal. He said he would resume whaling for four months this summer for the first time in four years, with up to 150 people expected to be hired to work on whalers.
Public support for whaling has declined in recent years. But for now, in Reykjavik harbor, boats used to kill whales continue to float alongside boats used for whale-watching tours. “You can see the whalers in front of ours,” Estelle said as our little boat landed. Tourists disembark and sail past their tall sails as they set out in search of ‘whale-friendly’ restaurants.