History

History of Whale Hunting within Icelandic waters

12th – 17th Century

It can be said with some certainty that the Basques were the first to develop what can be referred to as ‘organised whale hunting’ within Europe. There is evidence suggesting that they began hunting Northern Right whales in the Bay of Biscay in the 12th Century. It is thought that they consequently moved further northwest due to the depletion of the Biscayan Northern right whale population. This included whale hunting around the Island of Svalbard from 1596, and there is evidence suggesting that they had made their way to Icelandic Westfjord’s waters by 1604 (with historical Icelandic manuscripts depicting whale harpooning as early as 1610). Basque whale hunting stations were established in Iceland between 1613 and 1615, with one located close to Steingrímsfjörður. There is also some indication that the Dutch, Danish and Norwegians began whale hunting in Icelandic waters in the early 1600s. By the early 17th Century, the Basques were whale hunting in Labrador, Newfoundland and Iceland.

The Basques focused their efforts on hunting right whales as they swim slowly, have thick layers of blubber, feed at or near the surface as well as stay relatively close to shore which made them easy targets that float after being killed. Having only handheld harpoons and wooden boats this made the species particularly vulnerable to whale hunters compared to others. Their name derives from the fact that they were considered the ‘right’ whale to kill.

Accounts stemming from both the 17th and 18th centuries highlight the extent of Basque whale hunting around the Icelandic coast. The relationship between the Basques and Icelanders during this time is not particularly well documented; it is thought they interacted with each other and potentially benefited economically from the hunting that took place. However historical accounts from the learned Jón Guðmundsson, mention the ordered killings of 32 Basques in 1615, who had found themselves on the Icelandic coast after their whale hunting ships were wrecked.[1]

18th Century: The U.S.A and France

It is thought that the French were whale hunting around Iceland between 1716 and 1727. However their main hunting grounds (as was the case in the 17th Century) were further north in the Arctic, as sailing conditions made it easier to hunt right whales.

There is also evidence that both North American and French whale hunters were present in Icelandic waters throughout the late 18th to 19th Century, including a New England company whale hunting in 1776 and French ships from Le Havre documented in 1844.[2]

19th Century: The advent of ‘modern’ whale hunting and Norway

With the creation and increased adoption of steamships in the mid-19th Century, whale hunters were now able to target other faster swimming whale species (such as sei and sperm whales) whose speeds meant they were previously much harder to target. In addition to this, the invention of an explosive-tipped harpoon which pumped air to keep harpooned whales afloat, facilitated and proliferated whale hunting in a way that was previously unimaginable – allowing whale hunting to operate at a commercial scale never seen previously.[3]

North American operations

The American Thomas Roy developed a ‘rocket’ harpoon in 1856 and as captain of the Reindeer made his way to the east coast of Iceland in 1862 to test it. His initial version, then tested on 20 Icelandic baleen whales, proved unsuccessful, as the whales sank after being killed. Despite Icelandic authorities being unhappy with him choosing their waters as a testing site, he began mass producing the weapon in New Jersey and returned and ‘successfully’ killed 40 whales during his 1865 trip, and a further 90 the year after.

In 1863 both Roy and another American Lilliendahl established the first modern whale hunting station in Iceland – on the eastern coast by Seydisfjördur. Their operation included a sailing vessel and steamship in addition to two towed whale hunting boats. The operation only lasted a few years.[4]

Danish operations

Iceland was still a Danish dependency and throughout the mid-19th Century a Danish company located in Djupivogur (east Iceland) was also a large operator. The Danish Fishing Company (Det Danske Fiskeriselskab) was founded by Danish naval officer O.C. Hammer in 1865. Hammer established two whale hunting stations (on the south-west and eastern coasts), but stopped whale hunting in 1869. Throughout this period Roy helped train and sold harpoons to them. It is thought that between 1869 and 1875 Dutch operators were still whale hunting within Icelandic waters.[5]

Norwegian operations

In 1862 the Norwegian whale hunter Svend Foyn committed himself to finding the ‘best’ way to hunt baleen whales. In 1866 he made his way to Iceland to learn more about Roy’s methods and in 1870 developed the explosive-tipped harpoon.

In 1879 inhabitants of the small Norwegian town of Haugesund fished herring off the Icelandic coast; one of the fishers (Mons Larsen Kro) approached Foyn and together they built Isafold and established a whale hunting station in Alptafjördur in 1883 (off the northwestern coast of Iceland). Foyn also established a station at Nordfjördur (on the eastern coast). It is believed that they largely hunted blue whales.

Local Icelandic and Danish authorities as well as the Icelandic fishing community stated that Foyn needed to become a Danish citizen and settle in Iceland to continue his operations. He refused and sold his shares to a Norwegian – Thomas Amile. Amile moved to Iceland and resumed operations, continuing the hunting of blue whales and purchased a second catcher vessel in 1887. Returns were poor between 1889 and 1893 but several companies became interested in Icelandic whale hunting – and in 1894 Iceland entered a 17-year period of increased operations. For instance, after purchasing a third catcher vessel in 1894, Amile made a ‘record’ catch of 128 whales the following year.

In 1883, the Icelandic government granted permission for Norway to build whale hunting stations in Iceland, resulting in eight stations on the Westfjords and five or six on the east coast. The two largest stations (for the entire North Atlantic) were run by Norwegian Hans Ellefsen. By 1901 he had expanded his fleet from two to seven vessels. Whale carcass remains were dumped on Icelandic shores post-processing, which caused many Icelanders to complain as the resulting corpses proved hazardous for sheep roaming the shores for seaweed. Ellefsen went against this practice and set up a guano factory.

 

Whale hunting off the Eastfjords lasted just over a decade, with a total of 1,305 whales being killed by 1902. In 1911 Ellefsen sold his company to Christian Salversen – citing excessive hunting which rendered business unprofitable.

By the early 1900’s whale populations were depleted and Norwegian companies moved to the Arctic where whales could still be found in high numbers. Between 1895 and 1905 a total of 10,475 whales had been killed, mostly by Norwegian operators.[6]

20th Century: The Icelandic response

1902

Operations continued throughout the beginning of the 20th Century, including Salversen’s investment in the Danish Company Dansk Hvalfangst-og Fiskeri Aktieselskab (previously a Norwegian company that had been operating in Isafjördur from 1897). After closing in 1904, Salvesen bought Amile’s company as well as another owned by naturalised Dance Marcus C. Bull in 1906.

Foreign operators also continued whale hunting in Iceland. In 1903 the German Hamburg-based company Deutsche Seefischerei-Verein (German Sea-fishing Association) commenced operations on the east coast. The operation failed in 1905 and was sold to Bull (acting on behalf of Salvesen) who dismantled the whale hunting station and moved it to the Falklands.[7]

Up until this point there was little to no domestic whale hunting taking place, with operations all being owned by foreign companies. In 1897 the Whale Industry Company of Iceland (Hval-Industri Aktieselskabet Island) was established by Icelander A. Asgeirsson. Its assets anticipated the operation to yield economic returns, however it failed to make a profit and was sold by Asgeirsson in 1906, who closed operations due to limited returns a few years later.[8]

1913

Since the late 19th Century Iceland had attempted to control whale hunting within Icelandic waters. For instance, in 1886 it banned catches within Icelandic territorial waters (3 nm from the coast) in the summer and in herring fishing areas. However, most whale hunting was conducted further offshore, so was not impacted by this ban –and there were no limitations on the towing of whales back to whale hunting stations – effectively making the ban redundant. Growing opposition from Icelandic fishers resulted in another attempt to ban whale hunting in 1903, however this was refused by the Icelandic parliament the Alþingi.

Two years later Iceland’s Alþingi debated a whale hunting ban, and in 1913 announced a 10 year ban that would commence in October 1915, and was extended until 1928 when the law was repealed. There is contention over whether this was to ensure the conservation of dwindling whale populations or to promote the establishment of domestic whale hunting operations. Other reasons given include foreign exploitation, the resulting pollution from stations post-processing and negative impacts on fjord fisheries due to excessive levels of hunting. By 1915 approximately 17, 000 whales had been killed within Icelandic waters.[9]

 1935

Iceland recommenced commercial whale hunting in 1935, with new legislation stating that only Icelanders could hunt in its territorial waters. Domestic operations commenced with the opening of an Icelandic company which operated in Tálknafjörður until 1940.[10]

 

1925

Some 10 years after whale hunting was suspended in 1915, smaller vessels in coastal waters started to catch limited numbers of minke whales for local consumption. After continuing at a low level for several decades, coastal minke whale hunting expanded rapidly during the 1960s and 70s, after which the IWC limited the catch quota to 200 minke whales per annum, for export to Japan, until hunting was suspended by in 1985.[11]

1944

Iceland became an independent state under the King of Denmark in 1918, and in 1944 Iceland became a self-governing Republic.[12]

1948

In 1948, another Icelandic company, Hvalur H/F, established a whale hunting station in Hvalfjordur and by 1975 killed on average 250 fin whales, 65 sei whales, and 78 sperm whales each year, in addition to some blue and humpback whales. Most of the whale meat processed was exported to the UK, whilst meal was used as domestic animal feed. Until the end of the 20th Century Icelandic operations resulted in approximately 17,000 whales being killed within Icelandic waters.

1948 was also the year Iceland acceded to the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling (ICRW) and began attending annual meetings held by the International Whaling Commission (IWC).[13]

 1950 – 1985

The International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling was created to “provide for the proper conservation of whale stocks and thus make possible the orderly development of the whaling industry’. Throughout this period whale hunting was focused on fin, sei, sperm and minke whales, as blue and humpback whales were still very scarce; these species were legally protected by the International Whaling Commission in the late 1950’s, although Iceland initially objected to the decision to protect blue whales. Icelandic gray whales and Northern right whales had already been hunted to near extinction in the 17th and 19th centuries respectively. The hunting of minke whales within Icelandic waters did not commence until the 20th Century (around 1914) and they were hunted until IWC regulations stipulated otherwise in 1985.[14]

1982

Due to the worldwide decline in whale stocks, in 1982 the IWC voted in favour of a moratorium on commercial whaling, to come into force in 1986. In February 1983 the Icelandic Parliament voted (29 to 28) to not oppose the IWC decision. However the IWC allowed the continuation of whaling for scientific purposes (Article VIII of the International Convention on Regulation of Whaling), and the Icelandic Marine Research Institute created a four year research programme targeting 80 fin, 40 sei and 80 minke whales a year. Hvalur H/F was commissioned to carry out the research.[15]

1989

In 1989 the lethal research programme finished, with a total of 362 whales killed throughout the four year period (less than the 800 initially planned). Despite the IWC resolutions that required member states to use the meat domestically, Iceland exported much of the whale meat to Japan. In the same year two attempts to discuss bills that would terminate Icelandic scientific whaling programmes were made in the Alþingi – neither led to a formal decision.[16]

1991

In December 1991, the Icelandic government decided that it would withdraw from the IWC as of June 1992, in protest that the IWC had not modified or rescinded the 1982 moratorium decision in addition to their appeal of the Scientific Committee to resume whale hunting being rejected.[17]

1992

In 1992 Iceland attended the first meeting of the North Atlantic Marine Mammal Commission (NAMMCO) in Greenland, the inaugural meeting of NAMMCO in the Faroes as well as NAMMCO’s second meeting in Norway in 1993. It sought minke whale quotas which it thought NAMMCO would grant, however other members did not wish to challenge the IWC. In addition to this, Iceland took the lead in the 1992 U.N. negotiations Agenda 21 to attempt to have NAMMCO recognised as a viable alternative to the IWC, however it was agreed in the meeting that the IWC would be the global authority on whale conservation and management. [18]

From 1990 to 2003 no whale hunting took place in Icelandic waters.[19]

Resuming commercial whale hunting through self-allocated quotas

2002

Iceland rejoined the IWC in 2002 with a legally disputed reservation against the moratorium previously established; as a consequence certain countries still do not recognise Iceland’s IWC membership. During the 2002 IWC annual meeting, Iceland also declared its intention not to resume commercial whaling until 2006 (or later) as long as the IWC made progress, as defined by Iceland, towards a management regime that allows for commercial whaling.[20]

2003

Iceland established a five-year research programme between 2003 and 2007, resuming scientific whaling of minkes, fin and sei whales (both endangered species). They stated that the purpose of the programme was to research diet composition and contaminants, and had an initial 500 whale quota for all 3 whale species. However, only a total of 196 minkes were killed throughout this period. In 2007 the Icelandic fisheries minister announced the closing of the programme.

2006

Iceland recommenced commercial whaling under its IWC moratorium reservation in 2006, resulting in a self-allocated quota of nine endangered fin whales and 30 minke whales (of which seven of each were killed).[22]

2008

The Icelandic government announced a commercial quota of 40 minke whales, of which 38 were killed.[23]

2009

In January 2009 whilst the then Icelandic government was voted out of office due to the global financial crisis, the outgoing fisheries minister authorised a substantial increase to Iceland’s self-allocated commercial whale hunting quotas – amounting to an annual quota of 150 fin whales and 100 minke whales until 2013. The incoming fisheries minister did not overturn the decision, and large-scale commercial whale hunting resumed, resulting in the killing of 125 fin whales and 81 minkes in 2009. The authorities anticipated that an increased fin whale quota would result in economically-beneficial trade with Japan.[24]

2010

In 2010 Iceland had the largest commercial whale hunting season in decades, and a total of 148 fin whales and 60 minkes were killed.[25]

2011

In early 2011, Iceland’s Marine Research Institute (HAFRO) proposed increased quotas of 154 fin whales and 216 minkes in addition to carrying over 20% of the previous year’s quota. It also suggested whale hunting around the CM area (Jan Mayen islands) where Norway had also issued quotas.

In 2011 Japan experienced a devastating earthquake and tsunami, resulting in the collapse of the Japanese fin whale meat market – ensuing a two-year Icelandic fin whale hunting hiatus.[26]

2013

Fin whale hunting resumed in Iceland, with a total of 134 fin whales and 35 minkes killed.[27]

2014

137 fin whales and 24 minkes killed.[28]

2015

155 fin whales and 29 minkes killed.[29]

2016

In February 2016, Kristjan Loftsson – Iceland’s sole fin whale hunter – stated that his company Hvalur H/F would not be operating that summer. Japan is Iceland’s only fin whale meat consumer (and customer) and Loftsson cited altered Japanese whale meat analysis methods as the reason for his decision. Despite this Hvalur H/F exported 1,530 tonnes of fin whale products (incl. meat) in July 2016. Arriving in Japan in September much of the meat remained in freezers unable to enter the Japanese market. Tourists visiting Iceland remain the largest consumers of Icelandic minke whale meat.[30]

2017

Gallup polling commissioned by the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) revealed that 35.4% of Icelanders now claim to support fin whale hunting – down from 40% the previous year. This is also the first time that such polling has found Icelandic support for whale hunting overall to have been less than 50%.[31]

2018

It is believed no whale meat remains in Loftsson’s freezers after his last export to Japan in 2017 and on Tuesday 17 April 2018 Loftsson declared that he would recommence fin whale hunting – with a quota for 191 whales (given the 20% carried over quota rule).

 

 

[1] Stórhvalaveiðar við Ísland til 1915 by Smári Geirsson, Sögufélag, Reykjavík 2015Hvalveiðar við Ísland 1600-1939, Trausti Einarsson, Reykjavík 1987 and http://www.whalemuseum.is/whaling-in-iceland/history-of-whaling/

[2] Stórhvalaveiðar við Ísland til 1915 by Smári Geirsson, Sögufélag, Reykjavík 2015Hvalveiðar við Ísland 1600-1939, Trausti Einarsson, Reykjavík 1987

[3] http://www.whalemuseum.is/whaling-in-iceland/history-of-whaling/ and Tønnessen J.N., and Johnsen A.O. (1982) The History of Modern Whaling, translated from the Norwegian by Christophersen, R.I., C. Hurst and Company, London.

[4] http://www.whalemuseum.is/whaling-in-iceland/history-of-whaling/, Tønnessen J.N., and Johnsen A.O. (1982) The History of Modern Whaling, translated from the Norwegian by Christophersen, R.I., C. Hurst and Company, London.

[5] Stórhvalaveiðar við Ísland til 1915 by Smári Geirsson, Sögufélag, Reykjavík 2015 Hvalveiðar við Ísland 1600-1939, Trausti Einarsson, Reykjavík 1987, http://us.whales.org/issues/in-depth/short-history-of-icelandic-commercial-whaling

[6] http://us.whales.org/issues/in-depth/short-history-of-icelandic-commercial-whaling. http://www.whalemuseum.is/whaling-in-iceland/history-of-whaling/, Tønnessen, Johan; Arne Odd Johnsen (1982). The History of Modern Whaling. University of California Press, Berkeley. ISBN 0-520-03973-4, Stórhvalaveiðar við Ísland til 1915 by Smári Geirsson, Sögufélag, Reykjavík 2015 Hvalveiðar við Ísland 1600-1939, Trausti Einarsson, Reykjavík 1987

[7] http://us.whales.org/issues/in-depth/short-history-of-icelandic-commercial-whaling

[8] http://us.whales.org/issues/in-depth/short-history-of-icelandic-commercial-whaling

[9] http://us.whales.org/issues/in-depth/short-history-of-icelandic-commercial-whaling, Stórhvalaveiðar við Ísland til 1915 by Smári Geirsson, Sögufélag, Reykjavík 2015 Hvalveiðar við Ísland 1600-1939, Trausti Einarsson, Reykjavík 1987, http://www.whalemuseum.is/whaling-in-iceland/history-of-whaling/

[10] http://us.whales.org/issues/in-depth/short-history-of-icelandic-commercial-whaling, http://www.whalemuseum.is/whaling-in-iceland/history-of-whaling/, Stórhvalaveiðar við Ísland til 1915 by Smári Geirsson, Sögufélag, Reykjavík 2015 Hvalveiðar við Ísland 1600-1939, Trausti Einarsson, Reykjavík 1987

[11] Scientific Whaling in Iceland: For Whom and Why? International Fund for Animal Welfare, October 2003.

[12] http://us.whales.org/issues/in-depth/short-history-of-icelandic-commercial-whaling

[13] Tønnessen, Johan; Arne Odd Johnsen (1982). The History of Modern Whaling. University of California Press, Berkeley. ISBN 0-520-03973-4, Stórhvalaveiðar við Ísland til 1915 by Smári Geirsson, Sögufélag, Reykjavík 2015 Hvalveiðar við Ísland 1600-1939, Trausti Einarsson, Reykjavík 1987, http://us.whales.org/issues/in-depth/short-history-of-icelandic-commercial-whaling, http://www.whalemuseum.is/whaling-in-iceland/history-of-whaling/

[14] http://us.whales.org/issues/in-depth/short-history-of-icelandic-commercial-whaling, http://www.whalemuseum.is/whaling-in-iceland/history-of-whaling/

[15] http://us.whales.org/issues/in-depth/short-history-of-icelandic-commercial-whaling

[16] http://us.whales.org/issues/in-depth/short-history-of-icelandic-commercial-whaling

[17] http://us.whales.org/issues/in-depth/short-history-of-icelandic-commercial-whaling, http://www.whalemuseum.is/whaling-in-iceland/history-of-whaling/ and Iceland and Whale Conservation: A briefing by the Iceland Nature Conservation Association, June 2009

[18] http://us.whales.org/issues/in-depth/short-history-of-icelandic-commercial-whaling, http://www.whalemuseum.is/whaling-in-iceland/history-of-whaling/ and Iceland and Whale Conservation: A briefing by the Iceland Nature Conservation Association, June 2009

[19] Stórhvalaveiðar við Ísland til 1915 by Smári Geirsson, Sögufélag, Reykjavík 2015 Hvalveiðar við Ísland 1600-1939, Trausti Einarsson, Reykjavík 1987

[20] http://us.whales.org/issues/in-depth/short-history-of-icelandic-commercial-whaling and Iceland and Whale Conservation: A briefing by the Iceland Nature Conservation Association, June 2009

[21] http://us.whales.org/issues/whaling-in-iceland and Iceland and Whale Conservation: A briefing by the Iceland Nature Conservation Association, June 2009

[22] https://iwc.int/table_objection

[23] https://iwc.int/table_objection

[24] http://us.whales.org/issues/in-depth/short-history-of-icelandic-commercial-whaling, http://us.whales.org/issues/whaling-in-iceland and https://iwc.int/table_objection

[25] https://iwc.int/table_objection

[26] https://iwc.int/table_objection

[27] https://iwc.int/table_objection

[28] https://iwc.int/table_objection

[29] https://iwc.int/table_objection

[30] http://us.whales.org/issues/whaling-in-iceland

[31] https://www.ifaw.org/united-kingdom/news/icelandic-support-whaling-decline-polling-reveals