Minke Whales Win a Victory in Iceland

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A Minke Whale swimming underwater in the ocean.

Gerard Soury / Getty Images

Despite international moratoriums, some countries continue the practice of whaling.

But if you make whaling economically difficult, it becomes much harder to sustain — and that creates a change in habits.

Iceland, for one, is done. The country's whaling industry is shutting down because hunting the northern minke whale (Balaenoptera acutorostrata), isn't nearly as profitable as watching them.

"This is very good news for minke whales and for Iceland," Sigursteinn Masson, Iceland Representative the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW), said in a statement. "Ending minke whaling will have a very positive impact on the far more economically viable industry of commercial whale watching."

Don't go fish

A whale swimming off the coast of Iceland.

Andreas Oettli / EyeEm / Getty Images

For 2018, the Icelandic whaling self-allocated quota was 262 whales, but only six whales were caught in June, with zero caught in July, which is typically the peak whale-hunting month. It's the lowest number of whales caught since 2003, when Iceland began whaling again. Only 17 animals were killed in 2017 and 43 whales were killed in 2016.

According to Gunnar Jonsson, spokesperson for Iceland's primary minke whaling company IP Fisheries, hunting for whales has become economically untenable.

"We need to go much farther from the coast than before, so we need more staff, which increases costs," he told the Icelandic newspaper Morgunblaðið and was reported by the AFP.

The reason whalers must go much farther from the coast is simple: The enlargement of the Faxaflói Bay whale sanctuary late last year. Located in West Iceland, near the capital of Reykjavik, the area that now comprises the sanctuary accounted for some 85 percent of the whaling industry's catches, according to the IFAW press release.

The size of the sanctuary has been an ever-changing political hot potato, with its scope changing depending on whoever the minister of fishing and agriculture is. The current size, put in place by then-minister Þorgerður Katrín Gunnarsdóttir, returned the sanctuary to its 2013 size.

"I have been of the opinion that the whale sanctuary must be expanded in Faxaflói. We aren't going to ban whaling but the whale sanctuary will be enlarged here, among other reasons with respect to tourism and many other factors," Þorgerður said in November 2017.

Tourists and whales

Tourism is another economic imperative that may have influenced the decision.

While minke whale meat is sold in Iceland, a Gallup poll commissioned by the IFAW found that only 1 percent of the polled Icelanders actually partake of the meat, with another 82 percent claiming to have never tried it. Curious tourists, looking to sample what they presume is a local delicacy, make up the primary market for minke whale meat, with some 40 percent of tourists in 2009 claiming to have eaten whale meat while in Iceland.

The IFAW launched a "Meet Us Don't Eat Us" campaign in 2011 to educate tourists about the country's whaling industry and to discourage people from eating the meat. The campaign, coupled with pledges from downtown Reykjavik to not serve whale meat, seems to have resulted in a steep decline in tourists eating minke: Only 11 percent of IFAW-polled tourists had eaten any whale meat in 2017.

And as Þorgerður's comments in 2017 alluded to, whale watching is big business in Iceland, accounting for some $26 million in annual revenues for the local economy.

"Despite this very good news, we still have work to do in Iceland and other whaling countries," Masson said. "This year minke whale meat was imported from Norway, a country which continues to hunt whales. Although Icelandic whalers have stopped their operations, they are considering importing whale meat from Norway. IFAW will continue to campaign against whaling which is unnecessary, cruel, and rapidly becoming socially unpopular."

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