Astute readers of Alex in Wanderland may note that thus far I’ve had nothing but gushing praise for everything Icelandic (aside, I suppose, from the prices). It’s true, I love almost everything about this tiny island nation.

However, Iceland is embroiled in an international debate over an issue that I feel so passionately about that I feel myself forming a disclaimer every time I start to spout off on the otherwise perfection that is Iceland.

It’s an issue that has inspired more than twentyfive international leaders to make personal pleas to the Icelandic Prime Minister, an issue that has incited tourism boycotts, motivated protests and made Iceland a frequent leper of the international community.

That issue is whaling.

Of course, it’s about much more than whaling. It’s about a country’s right to do as it chooses, an international community’s prerogative to protect one of the world’s most majestic creatures, and the weighted values of history, autonomy, environment, and economy.

Surprisingly, it’s not Icelanders who are eating the harvested whale meat. So who is consuming the thousands of tons of meat from slaughtered whales in Iceland each year? The answer may come as a surprise.

Whaling in IcelandFrom a comedy show at Harpa

A Bit of Background

Whaling in the North Atlantic dates back at least to the 12th century, when records show that whales were sometimes hunted with spears for their blubber. By the late 1800’s, commercial whaling as we know it today was introduced to Iceland by the Norwegians. The industry was unstable in terms of both demand and supply of resources, and Iceland self-imposed a number of bans throughout the early 1900’s (source). However, commercial whaling in Iceland was full steam ahead in 1986, the year a world-wide moratorium on whaling was voted in by the International Whaling Commission (IWC), the global intergovernmental body charged with the conservation of whales and the management of whaling.

The years 1986 through 1989 were fraught with debates over the merits of “scientific whaling,” protests from allied countries, and boycotts of Icelandic fish from international supermarket chains and restaurant brands like Wendy’s. During those years the majority of whale meat spoiled in warehouses or was used as feed on fur farms (source). With the whaling industry providing little economic viability, Iceland chose to ban whaling in 1989. Yet In 2003, Iceland reintroduced “scientific whaling” to much protest from both the international community and local tourism businesses, who feared a global boycott on travel to Iceland (source, source). In 2007, Iceland joined Norway and Japan as the rogue violators of the IWC when they reintroduced commercial whaling, despite more than 25 nations delivering a formal diplomatic protest.

The controversy has not quieted. Today, Icelandic regulations allow for the hunt of both the minke whale and the fin whale, the latter an endangered species. The country has been accused of illegally exporting whale meal to Denmark and Latvia, and has killed hundreds of endangered whales in the process.

Whaling in IcelandFrom Little Hvalasafnid – The Small Whale Museum in Hvalfjörður

In Defense of Whaling

For many Icelanders, the question of “Do you support whaling?” has become synonymous with “Do you support Iceland?” Many claim there are nationalistic and historical reasons for keeping whaling alive. An interesting argument considering Norwegians introduced and operated early whaling stations in Iceland (source). In modern times, commercial whaling has been conducted by a single family, today helmed by Kristján Loftsson – making whaling a family business rather than a national one (source).

Other defenders of the whaling industry cite the comparison to chicken and cow meat, asking why the international community is not up in arms about the consumptions of those animals. Occasionally, scientific claims – disregarded by the majority of the scientific community — are presented claiming that whales, rather than human overfishing, are the reason for depleted fish stocks. One pro-whaling argument is that whaling creates jobs – clearly an effective one, considering Iceland’s return to commercial whaling coincided with one of the most devastating financial crashes in Europe.

When I passed through Hvalfjörður on my road trip through Iceland, I was eager to see Iceland’s main whaling station for myself. I don’t know what I was expecting – a bloody mega warehouse surrounded by Greenpeace protestors? – but whatever it was, I didn’t find it here. The only evidence of this bay’s significance in the worldwide whaling debate was a tiny “museum” attached to a gas station, identified by a cheerful sign reading “Little Hvalasafnid – The Small Whale Museumand accompanied by a cartoon whale illustration.

Whaling is a touchy issue, not openly discussed between travelers and locals for fear of offending another’s politics. On the way back from my diving trip, I gingerly brought up the issue in the van with two native Icelanders and one European who had been living there for years – a group I suspected would likely be anti-whaling. The mood turned icy as one of them bluntly cut off the conversation, stating, “I don’t think you understand the issue as clearly as you think you do, Alex.” It was a telling response, considering that I had been careful not to state any opinion at all.

In Defense of Whales

Despite many urgent environmental issues swarming the world today, whaling in Iceland still makes the cut. Why such passion? It starts with a country violating international law. It is also a question of sustainability and conservation. Many scientists believe whale populations have been too depleted to sustain commercial whaling anytime in the foreseeable future. They are simply not suitable for human harvesting, and contrary to myth they are not responsible for reducing local fish stocks – making their deaths quite senseless. But there is another question, too, that of cetacean intelligence and the level of suffering that these animals undergo during harvest.

These whales — highly social beings with complex form of communication — suffer a cruel and slow death, often taking hours to die. Chris Tuite of the International Fund for Animal Welfare states that despite years of research trying to find one, “there is absolutely no way to kill a whale humanely, and we believe that on that basis alone, it’s time to say goodbye to whaling (source).”

Whale Watching in IcelandA minke whale in Iceland

Who Is Eating The Whale?

One of the most emotional pro-whaling arguments is that eating whale is a nationalistic practice, and many visitors to Iceland believe that trying whale is experiencing an inherent part of Icelandic culture. They could not be more wrong. According to recent Gallup polls, only 3% to 5% of Icelanders eat whale meat regularly (source)! For a country of 320,000 people, that’s only 16,000 customers – certainly not enough to sustain the country’s whaling industry.

So what happens to the rest of it? It’s exported to Japan, where it rots in warehouses due to oversupply – or it’s consumed by curious tourists to Iceland. The same foreign tourists who on principle oppose whaling are keeping the minke whaling industry alive. According to the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society, 40% of the meat taken from the minke whales killed by Icelandic whalers is eaten by tourists holidaying in the country, obtained in one of the more than 100 shops and restaurants selling the meat.

A scientist in Reykjavík conducted a study in which she surveyed 1,500 tourists heading out on a whale-watching excursion. Imagine her surprise to find that 19% had already sampled whale meat on their trips, and a majority said they would eat it for “cultural and historic” reasons (source). What causes this dichotomy, where 80% of travelers indicate in surveys that they morally oppose whaling, and yet 40% of the whale meat is being eaten by that same group (source)?

Rob Marsland, UK Director of the IFAW, describes what I would call vacation syndrome:“Normal rules are suspended. You think eating whale meat is part of the culture, so it won’t make a difference if I eat it. It’s easy to have two different thoughts in your brain—I’m against whaling, and I’m on holiday so it’s OK to eat whale meat (source).”

In my opinion, it is not okay at all. I was dismayed to see whale meat marketed so heavily towards tourists on the streets of Reykjavík, and to see many popular travel bloggers posting about eating it with little reference to the ethics of doing so. Tourists eating whale meat is not paying respects to Icelandic history, or making a nod to Icelandic culture – it’s tourists indulging their curiosity while turning a blind eye to a cruel industry.

Whale Watching in IcelandMixed messages in Reykjavík

Failed Attempts

Icelanders have lived with decades of pressure from the international community as well as occasionally destructive activism from groups like Sea Shepard, a controversial marine conservation group which Iceland labels an “eco-terrorism group”. Neither has dented Iceland’s resolve to do as it wishes and continue whaling.

In 1986, Sea Shepherd founder Paul Watson led a mission that ended in the sinking of two whaling boats in Reykjavík harbor. Today, Watson doesn’t mince words when he describes his position on Icelandic whaling:

“They do it in a pathetic attempt to hold onto the past so that they can continue to identify with their bloody legacy of whaling. It is a blood sport to them and a way of indulging in the sadistic pleasure of killing whales and thumbing their noses at other nations. Killing whales is the pursuit of little people with small minds with a lust to destroy creatures more intelligent and more beautiful than themselves. Sea Shepherd Conservation Society is supporting an international boycott of tourism to Iceland and a boycott of all Icelandic products (source).”

I support Sea Shepherd both ideologically and with small contributions, but I cringe reading that statement. And I’m not the only one. Icelandic anti-whaling activist Sigursteinn Másson believes there would not be whaling in Iceland today had Sea Shepherd not sunk those two ships. “It was like a terrorist attack on Iceland. It made Icelanders determined to never give in,” he claims (source).

Clearly, verbal and literal attacks on whalers have done little to slow whaling. I believe a truly effective campaign will be one that allows both residents and visitors to be pro-Iceland but also anti-whaling. Fortunately, there is an approach gaining traction in the conservation community that allows a country with something to lose from conservation — like the whaling industry — something more valuable to gain — such as the whale-watching industry.

Whale Watching in IcelandWhale-watching in Faxaflói Bay

The Value Approach

There is another species in our oceans that has suffered cruelly due to human greed, but is now finding protection as conservationists learn to turn that monetary desire in their favor. For sharks, the economic benefits of tourism have been a life saver – literally. After a number of studies broke down the dollar value of a shark for its fin versus the sharks’ lifetime contribution to the shark-tourism industry, governments started to realize that sharks are indeed worth more alive than dead. For example, one highly respected Australian study determined that each individual reef shark was responsible for $179,000 per year in tourism revenue, as opposed to the going rate of $108 per shark fin (source). Last year, the Bahamas joined a growing list of countries including Honduras, The Maldives, and Palau in deciding that data was worth changing laws for. All of those countries have signed into effect a ban on all commercial shark fishing as well as a ban on the trade of shark products (source). The New York Times wrote more about the trend:

Interestingly, the “value approach” to endangered wildlife is catching on. The World Wildlife Fund, the Nature Conservancy and Stanford University have been working together to map and value nature on a larger scale around the world with a tool called InVEST. They have projects under way in Belize, Borneo, Colombia, Namibia, Sumatra, Tanzania, and Virunga in the Congo basin. Source

Could a similar approach, of carefully weighing the economic value of whales alive versus dead, work in Iceland? Tourism is the second-largest industry in Iceland (source). In Reykjavík alone, whale watching attracts more tourists than any other activity. In 2010, whale watching’s total economic contribution to the country was estimated at US$16.4 million. (source). At its peak, whaling in Iceland topped out at a US$4 million dollar a year industry (source).

“Our business is much more profitable than theirs,” states Eva Maria Thorarinsdottir, marketing manager of Reykjavik’s Elding Whale Watching. She claims the minke whales were much more approachable before Iceland resumed hunting, and that they now — understandably – avoid ships (source). An end to whaling and the resulting increase in sightings that Ms. Thorarinsdottir infers would result, would undoubtedly be a boon to the growing whale-watching industry – one that is growing globally to generate more than $2 billion per year (source).

Until then, tour operators have reported customers cancelling their trips as political gestures (source) while a quick glance at sites like, the Internet’s most popular scuba diving forum, reveals that while many are eager to dive in Iceland’s beautiful waters they won’t be visiting until whaling is ceased.

While in Reykjavík, my family and I were guests of the Elding Whale Watching boat, one of many similar vessels heading out to Faxaflói Bay. We donned bright red jumpsuits and stood on the deck listening to the accented narration of our jovial guide while we spotted playful white beak porpoises, a colony of tiny puffins, and even a few shy minke whales. I crossed my fingers for a sighting of the endangered fin whale, but none came out to play. Perhaps they were seeking shelter in safer waters.


Elding Whale WatchingWhale-watching with Elding

A Call to Action

While the statistics on whale populations may be bleak, policies are moving in the right direction. In 2011, President Obama ordered the State Department to keep Iceland’s whaling activities under review while he considered trade sanctions against the country for their continued violations of the IWC – a move that would certainly test Iceland’s claims of economic dependence on whaling (source). That same year, Kristjan Loftsson, the Icelandic whaling mogul responsible for killing 280 endangered fin whales over the past six years announced that due to economic issues, including difficulties in trading meat with Japan post-tsunami, he would not be fin whaling in 2012 (source). While Mr. Loftsson says he hopes to resume fin whaling in the future and he continues to hunt minke whale in the meantime, perhaps this interlude will give the conservation community time to band together.

I join Greenpeace, Sea Shepard, the International Whaling Commission, The International Fund for Animal Welfare, The Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society and many other conservation and scientific groups in urging you not to consume whale meat when visiting Iceland. These magnificent creatures are meant to be observed where they belong, in the sea — not as a steak on your dinner plate. Put your dollars towards toward the economically and environmentally sustainable business of whale watching.

If you feel passionately about this issue, there are ways to be proactive. You can donate to Greenpeace or IFAW’s campaigns, sign a petition to ban Icelandic whaling, or join Pierce Brosnan in sending a message to President Obama to impose trade sanctions on Iceland for illegal whaling.

Whale Watching in Iceland

This is a controversial topic, and I love a good debate! Let me know how you feel in the comments. Are you pro or anti whaling? Have you or would you try whale meat in Iceland?

  • Hannah
    September 10 2012

    Wow Alex, what a well executed post on a very important topic. I am in 100% agreement, and as a vegetarian animal lover, I too was deeply upset to see other bloggers eating whale meat. I am so glad that you have raised this subject, and have done so in such a thorough and compelling manner. I have loved following your trip to Iceland, and would love to visit the country, but will definitely be waiting until the whaling ban is adhered to once again. I hope this post will help prevent people from eating whale meat in the future; we have a global responsibility to protect these beautiful creatures and keep them in the sea and off the menu.

    • Alex
      September 10 2012

      Ah, a fellow animal loving blogger 🙂 I’m really interested to read that you’ve held off on visiting Iceland until they follow the ban… I wish there were statistics on that! I’m sure Iceland would be interested to see them. Kudos to you for being a person who carries their beliefs through to their actions so effectively.

      PS – I totally watched Earthlings after our dinner, and it had a great impact on me. Thank you for the recommendation!

  • Sky
    September 10 2012

    Alex, I am so impressed right now! Thank you for writing this. There was some much information in this that I had no idea about. I was against the idea of whaling in general before reading this but now I feel like I have the facts to back up my opinion. I would still visit Iceland, probably, but would choose whale-watching over anything related to whaling.

    Thanks for opening this up to discussion – hopefully everyone can have a mature change of opinions. I look forward to reading others’ thoughts!

    • Alex
      September 10 2012

      Well thank YOU for reading all 2,000+ words of it! I know that goes well beyond the average blog readers’ attention span 🙂 I look forward to reading everyone’s thoughts as well… hopefully we can really get a conversation going here.

  • Chrystal McKay
    September 10 2012

    Wow, very nicely written piece. It is a very important topic and I would certainly say that I am pro-Iceland but anti-whaling. And I don’t often delve into something simply because it is a “cultural experience” (or not truly one as eating whale meat isn’t traditional Icelandic). I wouldn’t eat Whale meat because I am against whaling, same way I wouldn’t eat snake blood because I think its cruel. I don’t ever feel I’m missing out on a cultural experience or not being “adventurous” enough, I feel like I am sticking with my morals and in the end, what else do we have. I hope the country can change the whale hunting to whale watching and make their tourist industry boom enough with that aspect to eliminate the other. Great piece and a highly fascinating topic. One that sadly won’t be solved soon.

    • Alex
      September 10 2012

      I didn’t participate in any of the snake blood stuff either when I was in Southeast Asia. I agree, in the end my beliefs are more important than anything else — from a wild Facebook status to crazy bragging rights over what weird animals I’ve consumed. Thank you for your thoughtful comment!

  • Gina
    September 10 2012

    So well-written, Alex. I hope if more people protest and stop eating the meat as a “cultural” thing to do, this practice will eventually stop. Whales are intelligent, feeling mammals and it’s so sad that this is happening to them.

    • Alex
      September 10 2012

      Thank you Gina! I feel like I was back in college writing a research paper, ha 🙂 I’m glad it payed off and its resonating with people!

  • D.J. - The World of Deej
    September 10 2012

    Great stuff….While I knew that whaling was an issue, I mostly associated it with Japanese hunters. I had no idea how much it is done in Iceland…

    • Alex
      September 10 2012

      Japan is definitely at the forefront of whaling in terms of size of the industry and the market, but Norway and Iceland are absolutely participants as well. I’m glad this post is helping to spread the word.

  • Keren
    September 10 2012

    Very interesting read Alex, it’s great to see such a well researched, well written article about this subject … most of what we see and hear is so full of strong biased emotions that it’s hard to get a clear picture of what’s going on. I actually thought that Japan was the only country that still whaled, probably a byproduct of the fact that they do it so close to Australia and therefore it gets talked about more here.

    • Alex
      September 11 2012

      Well, I definitely think my opinion is pretty clear here, but I did try to show both sides 🙂 On some levels I do agree with the argument that a country should be able to make decisions for itself but I think history has shown there are times when the international community needs to step in. Also, I think the argument would be very different if 90% of the meat was being eaten by Icelanders, but it’s not…

      • Keren
        September 12 2012

        Absolutely, if it was historically and culturally relevant it would be a very different argument but when most of what is caught is either being eaten by tourists or rotting in Japan (this makes my blood boil given how much whaling they do themselves!) then it’s difficult to justify.

  • Amanda
    September 10 2012

    Great post Alex! Well researched and well written. You should submit it to HuffPost or the Albany newspaper! The most interesting part for me is the divers’ responses- I would definitely think they would be anti whaling.

    • Alex
      September 11 2012

      I was certainly hoping to submit it somewhere — those are some great suggestions! Thanks!

  • YOU ROCK FOR WRITING THIS POST!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    • Alex
      September 11 2012

      Ha, thanks Andi! I appreciate it 🙂

  • Stephen Schreck
    September 10 2012

    That is awful! I am getting ready to start my travel blogging life and I vow to never eat whale!

    • Alex
      September 11 2012

      Hey Stephen, best of luck with blogging and thanks for pledging not to eat whale!

  • Olivia
    September 10 2012

    Wow, Alex this is one of your best pieces!

    On that same note, If you’re interested in doing some freelance work writing my research papers this semester let’s talk 😉

    • Alex
      September 11 2012

      Wait are you telling me you read the words and didn’t just look at the pictures for once?! Ha. But um yeah I really felt like I was back in college with this one! I totally forgot that overwhelming feeling when you first sit down to write a research paper and it’s all information overload.

  • TammyOnTheMove
    September 10 2012

    Whaling is a horrific thing to do, but other fish is also in great danger. As you mentioned sharks are brutally slaughtered for their fins too, so I am glad that some countries now realize that sharks are more valuable through tourism than they are through the food industry. Tunas are also horrible overfished and a lot of innocent animals end up in the nets (turtles, dolphins etc.). What really upsets me about Japanese whalers is that they claim to be researchers and put it on the ships in large letters. Yet it is so obvious that they are not killing all these whales for research. It makes me sick, that so little has been done about this. Thanks for pointing out ways to support the fight against whaling-I am going to sign Pierce Morgan’s petition.

    • Alex
      September 11 2012

      Yes I could definitely write a novel on the shark issue! Luckily sharks are really in the public eye right now and finally getting the attention they deserve in conservation. I definitely understand your frustration, but when I start to feel that way I remind myself of all the wonderful groups out there pouring their hearts into protecting these creatures and I feel a bit calmer!

  • Savvy Scot
    September 11 2012

    Hey! Great post… Realistically it is not a very big portion of the Icelandic population eating whales then is it? Just a tourist attraction. For the records, I am TOTALLY AGAINST it!

    • Alex
      September 11 2012

      Yup, just 3-5%! Not a large portion at all.

  • Megan
    September 11 2012

    im so glad you took the time to write this heartfelt and fact-ridden post. most people (myself included) didnt realize the impact even just tasting whale would have on the species as a whole.

    when i was in iceland i never tried it because i felt it was wrong…despite claims that the particular species id be tasting was not endangered. i just couldnt bring myself to do it. and after moving to norway and eating things id never imagined id eat (for example, sheep head), i decided to taste whale one time. i actually felt super guilty afterwards. i didnt know the facts behind it, i just knew that there were species eaten around the world that were endangered and being mistreated or wasted.

    i will NEVER eat or even suggest someone visiting me in norway to eat. it is unethical and just unnecessary given all the other foods around the country that is anything but poor.

    • Alex
      September 11 2012

      Hey Megan, thanks for taking the time to share your story! I think you hit the nail on the head about not knowing… I really think if tourists knew the facts (that tourism is largely sustaining whaling) that they would not eat whale. Lets hope this post reaches a lot of people then!

  • Torre – Fearful Adventurer
    September 11 2012

    Tell me which bloggers ate whale meat. I’m going to hunt them down, slice them up, and devour them medium rare.

    • Alex
      September 11 2012

      Ha. Actually the comments so far are totally one sided… I’m really hoping some of them will stop by and share about their decisions.

  • Erica Erickson Forehand
    September 11 2012

    This is an excellent post and is written beautifully! Good job!! 🙂

    As an animal rights supporter and long time vegetarian, I am completely against whaling. Its a shame that these beautiful endangered animals are subject to such cruelty for their meat. Whaling is something I have heard about before, but did not really know all the details. Thank you bringing light to this very important topic!

    • Alex
      September 11 2012

      Thank you Erica! I’m glad I’m able to spread around some whaling facts 🙂

  • Emily in Chile
    September 11 2012

    This is a great post, thank you for sharing! I’ve seen a couple posts from bloggers trying “traditional Icelandic food” and wondered if I’d eat whale…on the one hand, I thought, I’m always up for something cultural, but on the other hand I don’t agree with whaling. It’s good to know that whale meat isn’t even particularly cultural, making my eventual choice an easy no to whale meat.

    • Alex
      September 12 2012

      Emily, I’m glad to hear this post may have helped influence you to say “no” to whale meat in Iceland… I think that’s the greatest compliment a blogger could receive!

  • Ayngelina
    September 11 2012

    Wow a complex issue and very similar to the one with sealing in Canada.

    • Alex
      September 12 2012

      Yeah, there are definitely connections there. However — and I don’t know much about the seal issue — I believe that tourism isn’t involved in the seal hunt in any way, is it? That’s my biggest problem with whaling in Iceland, that tourism has such a huge part in keeping the industry alive.

  • Caty al
    September 11 2012

    Thanks for all the information! I didn’t know half the facts that you stated. It makes me sick that people hunt whales and then eat their meat.It’s great to see that you use your blog and educate us readers on such an important topic.I am sure you have reached a lot of people and many will follow suit and help stop the whaling!

    • Alex
      September 12 2012

      Thank you so much Caty! I really appreciate your comment and hope you are right 🙂

  • Idun
    September 11 2012

    It’s interesting it’s such a touchy subject in Iceland. Here in Norway, at least in the south, I think many (especially least younger) people doesn’t even know we do whaling at all. I’ve never heard anyone talk about it here, know anyone who eat whale or even seen whale meat in a store. I actually had to look up a bit about whaling in Norway after reading this, as I didn’t know anything. I’m against whaling as well, so fortunately it looks like whaling here is declining. They’ve only been catching half of what they are allowed lately and the number of people doing whaling is decreasing, so hopefully whaling here will just quietly die out when the guys doing it now are too old to work.

    • Alex
      September 12 2012

      I definitely know next to nothing about whaling in Norway, but one reason for the discrepancy may be that Norway initially opposed the IWC’s ruling, making them exempt from sanctions (if I understand the ruling correctly!) That at least clears up the legal imbalance Iceland has been embroiled in over this issue.

  • Kent @ NVR
    September 11 2012

    What a great post. those pictures say it all.

    “Tourists eating whale meat is not paying respects to Icelandic history, or making a nod to Icelandic culture – it’s tourists indulging their curiosity while turning a blind eye to a cruel industry.”

    This will stick with me, and I’ll spread the word.

    • Alex
      September 12 2012

      Thanks Kent! Your last line is the greatest compliment any blogger could hope to hear…

  • Rika
    September 11 2012

    This is a really well-written piece Alex! Thank you! I didn’t know much about it but I do make a point to look into these kinds of things when I travel. Here on Roatan, conch is a big no-no yet I see it on all the tourist menus (while an invasive species like the lionfish, which everyone is encouraged to hunt, only makes it on one restaurant’s list). Kudos to you for getting the info out there.

    • Alex
      September 12 2012

      Ah, lionfish. I could write an entire post on that issue as well! What are we going to do about those little guys? I was happy when I was in Roatan to see local Divemasters being so proactive.

  • Giselle and Cody
    September 12 2012

    Great post! Thank you for being aware of others suffering.
    It is time that we think not only of ourselves. All sentient beings suffer. The planet is also suffering greatly.
    We will definitely be sharing.

    • Alex
      September 12 2012

      Thank you so much for sharing. If I had one post that I would love to spread around the interwebs, this would be it!

  • First of all, great post. It was well researched and you did a good job to present both sides. Now, please keep in mind how nice and full of praise those first two sentences were and don’t skewer me for the rest of this……

    I ate whale meat, both cooked and raw, when I was living in Japan. I’m also not opposed to whaling, assuming of course that the whales being hunted are not endangered (which Minke whales aren’t), but I don’t exactly support it either.

    The impact on the environment from whaling is minimal, when compared to the impact of most other commercial fishing operations, so although I generally support environmental issues and animal rights, to me, whaling does not conflict with those views.

    I simply feel it’s an issue individual countries should be allowed to decide for themselves. Try to imagine how people in the West would feel if Hindi activists launched an anti-beef campaign similar to the current anti-whaling campaigns. Or if Muslims or Jews did the same for pork. It would not go over well.

    That brings me to the one aspect of this issue where I do have a strong opinion: Sea Shephard. To me their activities are akin to (but obviously not yet on the same scale as) anti-abortionists blowing up abortion clinics or terrorists terrorizing (and all the activities that entails).

    Similar to what the Icelandic anti-whaling activist said in your quote, I think the Japanese public has been slowly moving away from consuming whale meat and would have been doing so at a much faster rate were it not for groups like Sea Shepherd. When you violently attack a nation’s citizens, they naturally band together to oppose you; rather than further your cause, you set it back.

    As such, they are not really fighting for a cause, the are fighting for a purpose, ie they are trying to give meaning to their own lives. If they truly cared about this particular cause as much as they simply care about having a cause (any cause really), I am positive they would find a more effective way to reach their stated goals. Plenty of others have and still do, as you touched on in mentioning the “value approach” with respect to shark fins.

    • Alex
      September 12 2012

      Daniel, thank you so much for commenting. I know there are plenty of people out there who disagree with me, so I’m glad one commented here! 🙂

      I absolutely agree with you that the world’s fishing industries are having a devastating effect on our planet. For this reason I abstain from eating any fish products (though this was not a huge sacrifice for me I admit). While our views on Sea Shepard aren’t perfectly aligned, I think in this case they may have done more harm than good. Other groups, like the IFAW, seem to be making better headway.

      I do sometimes feel conflicted because in many ways I respect other cultures’ right to follow their beliefs without interference. I think if Icelanders were eating 100% of the whale caught in their waters I would have a much harder time writing an anti-whaling plea. But that is not the case here. My strongest objection to whaling in Iceland is the fact that the industry is being supported by wasted exports to Japan (already too much supply and not enough demand) and TOURISTS!

      It seems like you have come to your decision after careful thought and analysis, and so although I don’t agree with you on consuming whale meat, I do respect your opinion and the thorough way you explain it!

      • Thank you for you kind response to my comment. I think however people may feel about whaling, it won’t be an issue for too much longer, at least not with respect to Japan (or Iceland either from what I gathered from your post).

        I know the older generation of Japanese has a somewhat nostalgic view of eating whale meat, as it used to be a big part of school lunch menus, but that is no longer the case. As a result, the younger generation wouldn’t really miss whale meat if they no longer had access to it and are therefore much less inclined to fight to preserve the tradition.

  • Krista C.
    September 12 2012

    Well said Alex! I 100% agree with everything you said about whaling. I have been conflicted about visiting Iceland because of this very issue but everything you say about it resonates with me. I find it incredibly disappointing that tourists are supporting the whaling industry, not Icelanders.

    • Alex
      September 13 2012

      Hi Krista, thanks for your comment! I was happy to visit Iceland and support/promote the whale watching issue and hopefully bring attention to the whaling issue, but I definitely understand and respect those that are choosing not to visit until the issue is resolved. It seems from the comments here you’re not alone!

  • Federico
    September 13 2012

    Well researched and written post, and of course is controversial for some. I have my convictions clear: I’m against it. And I’m pretty sure if asked individually more than 50% of icelanders would be against it. Have you watched a documentary called The Cove about dolphin killings in Japan?

    • Alex
      September 13 2012

      I absolutely LOVE The Cove… I’m a documentary nut in general. In fact, if you’re passionate about ocean issues I really recommend Shark Water, it’s like the cove for our toothier friends 🙂

  • Erica
    September 13 2012

    I just couldn’t bring myself to do it…


    • Alex
      September 14 2012

      Well I’m glad to hear it 🙂

  • Abby
    September 16 2012

    A heartfelt and well-written plea, Alex! Those photos are horrifying — thank you for ending with such a beautiful one. That is so interesting that it is not even eaten in Iceland. Ugh.

    • Alex
      September 18 2012

      Thank you Abby, for this comment and for sharing the post! I appreciate your help spreading the word 🙂

  • Alex Andersen
    September 17 2012

    This read like a beautifully written editorial and has taught me to think twice before indulging in exotic dishes and experiences just because I’m there. I often push myself to try things based on the “when in Rome” mentality but never really considered that as tourists we’re actually driving the industry. Thank you for using your travels and your blog to do something meaningful and spread the word about an issue that needs discussion.

    • Alex
      September 18 2012

      Hi Alex, thank you so much for this comment! It’s the greatest compliment a blogger could get to know that they opened someone’s eyes to an important issue. I’m glad to hear this piece had an influence on you!

  • Jason Castellani
    September 18 2012

    Thanks so much for a thorough, well thought out piece on a very important topic. There are many issues that us travelers can contribute to while exploring the world. This one here, that you have touched on is one of my most passionate issues. There is also the issue of elephant tours in Thailand, hunting in Africa and cage diving with sharks. I think we can all be a bit more responsible when we travel to help create a more sustainable and healthy environment. Thanks for spreading the word!

    • Alex
      September 18 2012

      Hi Jason, thanks so much for your support and for sharing this piece! The hunting in Africa is another topic that really gets my blood boiling. However I’m distressed to hear cage diving grouped in — I always wanted to do that! Oh well, sounds like I have another topic to research…

  • Jen
    September 23 2012

    Great post, Alex. I think you did a really good job breaking down a huge, controversial topic. I am anti-whaling, and I would absolutely not eat whale meat anywhere in the world. I’ve seen more than enough episodes of ‘Whale Wars,’ and I feel for the poor creatures.

    Thanks for all you do to raise travelers’ ethical awareness!

    • Alex
      September 24 2012

      Thank you Jen, for reading and caring 🙂 Always so glad to hear from my readers that these topics are of interest to them!

  • Ace Travel Blogger
    September 26 2012

    Great article, I really enjoyed reading it and it’s wonderful to find someone with such a passion. It is tragic what is happening to Whales and other wildlife across the world such as seals and elephants, hunted for their tusks. Unfortunately it is the world we live in and all we can do is to take responsibility where possible and do our small part whatever that may be.

    • Alex
      September 27 2012

      Thanks for another word of support! Again, so glad to hear so many people passionate about this issue!

  • Seattle Dredge
    September 30 2012

    After watching those little Minkes (no idea what the plural of Minke is, but I’m pronouncing it as Minkies, lol) swimming around outside of Reykjavik harbour with my own eyes, there is absolutely no way I would ever want to eat one of them 🙁

    I definitely wouldn’t have done it before either, but I think seeing them in person helps. It would be great if more people went on whale watching tours before walking past those restaurants and deciding to give it a try.

    I get that trying different cuisine in different cultures is a normal thing–but there are at least a few things I won’t try.

    Awesome post :]

    (ps your email reply went to my junk folder for some reason, so I just saw it now!!)

    • Alex
      October 2 2012

      You make a good point… maybe the researcher should have asked people if their minds were changed post-whalewatching! Oh and I deleted your second comment because I fixed the typo 🙂 There should be an edit button for commenters!

  • Erik
    October 14 2012

    Great post. I understand the historical part of whaling, but with their numbers falling so much, it’s time to protect these wonderful creatures.

    • Alex
      October 14 2012

      I couldn’t agree more. We need to take better care of the planet that gives us so much.

  • Stephen Schreck
    October 14 2012

    I just re-read this article and I am still in shock. How can people be killing these beautiful animals and then let the meat go to waste in Japan. This is such a tragedy.

    • Alex
      October 14 2012

      Hey Stephen, so glad to hear there are other people that feel passionately about this. Spread the good word!

  • A World to Travel
    February 13 2013

    after having experienced volunteering in Iceland (involving “save the whales” campaigns..) I couldn’t be more against whale captures nowadays. Sadly, there are only a few where it used to be thousands..

    • Alex
      February 14 2013

      I would love to hear more about your volunteer experience… sounds very rewarding! Thank you for helping to protect these whales!

  • A World to Travel
    February 14 2013
  • Tony Clayton
    February 26 2013

    Just found your blog, indulging my desire to visit (and learn more about} Iceland 🙂 – but haven’t made it there yet…
    Anyway, congratulations Alex. Found your writing and photos interesting, engaging and inspirational – and very informative!
    I support absolutely the principle of travel with engagement with people, cultures and environment, as you are doing. Thanks for what you’ve written here and for your persuasive arguments. The world needs young people to think and make their views heard (sorry if that’s a bit obvious 🙁 but we ‘olderies’ haven’t always done such a good job). Please keep sharing your talents!

    • Alex
      February 27 2013

      Hi Tony! Thank you so much for this lovely comment. I really appreciate what you’ve said and I hope you’ll continue to read! 🙂

  • Dimmur
    March 27 2013

    Another American trying to safe the world…

    You need to dig deeper into whaling if you are going to understand it. Many of the things above are not true! Its all how you look at whaling. Obama could have use the Pelly act like they tried to force on Iceland but choose not to do it. Why? Because USA is one of the biggest whale hunters in the world and hunt more endangered whales then Iceland does. If you are against whaling so much start in your own country then you are allowed to move forward.

    • Alex
      March 27 2013

      Well, I’m not trying to save the world… just some whales! 🙂

      I’m not sure what in this story you think is untrue, but I’d love to hear it, because as you can see from my many cited sources I dedicated a lot of time to trying to make this a factual story. As for the US, if you are referring to the controlled whale hunt done by indigenous communities in Alaska, then yes, they do participate in whaling. However, as far as I know no tourists to Alaska are eating that meat. That is the crux of my issue with whaling in Iceland: tourists are taking part in what they think is a small part in a traditional practice, when in fact the numbers show they are heavily propping up the industry! I think they should be informed of the repercussions of their actions.

      I agree that charity starts at home, but as global citizens we would be remiss to only address the injustices inside our own borders.

      • Dimmur
        March 28 2013

        Ok lets start… Just as I was watching TV yesterday and a show called “idiot abroad” he is going to look at whales in Barrow Alaska… They give him whale meat to eat. So is he the only tourist that will get whale meat in the USA?

        I have gone over almost all the Icelandic restaurants and I will only find whale meat as a starter for some but still the whale meat is always sold out in the stores. Do you think that only tourist eat whale? I will tell you this is one of the most requested meat on the grill during summer for Icelanders.

        Icelanders eat minke whale not fin whales and there has not been hunted fin whale in icelnad since 2010. They hunt about 52 minke whales out of a stock that is not consider endangered. But the “controlled whale hunt like you put it in Alaska hunts bow head whales out of a stock of less the 10.000 amimals. How is that controlled and not the Icelandic whale hunt? And yes the big debate for the anti whaler is that Iceland hunts endangered fin whales. This is a massive misleading concept. Fin whales are not endangered in the northern hemisphere but they are in southern heimisphere. Fin whales are the only animal in the world that gets global endangered status. Its like if chicken would be out of stock in india then nobody in the world could eat chicken.

        Biology and distribution

        The fin whale (Balaenopterus physalus) is the second largest animal on earth after the blue whale. The largest individual killed in Icelandic waters reached 22.9 m in length and weighed an estimated 78 t. As the other rorquals the fin whale can be found all over the world. It is rarely found inshore but is most common over the continental shelf slope where the depth is more than 400 m, all around the country.

        The fin whale can feed on a variety of pelagic invertebrates and fishes. Research on the food of the fin whale in Icelandic waters did, however, indicate that it almost exclusively feeds on krill, mainly Meganychtiphanes norwegica. This is somewhat surprising, as the food is quite varied in other areas. However, the sampling only covered the whaling grounds west of Iceland but not the entire distribution range in Icelandic waters.

        Stock size and exploitation

        The fin whale has been an important targeted species during the whole of the 20th century. It was harvested, usually in higher numbers that any other whale species, from the beginning of industrial whaling in Iceland in 1883 until 1985, when the moratorium on commercial whaling took effect. Scientific whaling continued for further 4 years with 70-80 animals taken each year. About 14,000 animals were hunted during these 102 years and 7 more were added in 2006 when fin whale hunting was resumed.

        Sighting surveys indicate that there are around 24,000 fin whales in the East Greenland/Iceland and Jan Mayen stock area and 14,000 in the area between Iceland and Greenland. According to a recent assessment, the stock is likely to be close to its pre-exploitation level. On the basis of a recent evaluation by the Scientific Committee of NAMMCO, the Marine Research Institute of Iceland recommends that up to 150 fin whales can be caught in a sustainable manner.

        References and further information

        • Víkingsson, G. A. (2004). Langreyður (Fin whale). In Hersteinsson, P. (ed.), Íslensk spendýr (Icelandic mammals) (pp. 204-211). Reykjavík, Iceland: Helgafell.

        • Víkingsson, G.A., Pike, D.G., Desportes, G., Öien, N., Gunnlaugsson. Þ., Bloch, D. (2007). Distribution and trends in abundance of fin whales in the Northeast and Central North Atlantic as inferred from the North Atlantic Sightings Surveys 1987-2001. J. Cetacean Res. Manage. 9 (SUPPL.), 466-468.

        • Hreiðar Þór Valtýsson, University of Akureyri”

        Then comes the leagal side of the story, is it leagal? yes in every way! iceland hunts whales inside the 200 miles of Iceland and the laws of the sea and laws of a costal state gives Iceland every right to use the ocean like they want.

        Here are some answers from the Icelandic government:

        “1 Q: What is the importance of sustainable utilisation of living marine resources to Iceland?
        A: The Icelandic economy is overwhelmingly dependent on the utilization of living marine resources and fisheries. Fisheries in general have during the last decade constituted 56% of Iceland’s revenue from exported goods and 37% of Icelandic exported goods and services. Substantial whale research, including a series of large scale sightings surveys in the North Atlantic (NASS), has been conducted in Icelandic waters. This series, which covers the period from 1986, demonstrates that fin and minke whales are abundant and can be harvested in a sustainable way.

        2 Q: Is sustainable whaling illegal due to the IWC´s so-called moratorium on commercial whaling?
        A: No. For those countries that are bound by the so-called moratorium, commercial whaling is not permitted. There has never been a time when all IWC members have been bound by it. At the time of the re-entry of Iceland into the International Whaling Commission (IWC), Iceland made a reservation with respect to the so-called moratorium on commercial whaling. As a part of the reservation, Iceland committed itself not to authorise commercial whaling before 2006. Thereafter such whaling would not be authorised while progress was being made in negotiations regarding the IWC’s Revised Management Scheme (RMS), a management framework for sustainable whaling. At the IWC’s Annual Meeting in 2005 Iceland warned that no progress was being made in the RMS discussions. No objection was raised at the Annual Meeting to Iceland’s statement. At the 2006 IWC Annual Meeting, Iceland’s understanding was reconfirmed as the IWC generally agreed that talks on an RMS had reached an impasse. Therefore, the two limitations attached to Iceland’s reservation with respect to the so-called moratorium no longer apply. Accordingly, Iceland’s reservation is now in effect and Iceland has the legal right to resume sustainable whaling. This puts Iceland in the same position as other IWC members that are not bound by the so-called moratorium, such as Norway which has been conducting, continues legal sustainable whaling for many years.

        3 Q: Will Iceland’s decision on sustainable whaling have a negative effect on the ongoing discussion concerning the future of the IWC?
        A: It should not. The aim of those discussions is to assist the Commission to arrive at a consensus solution to the main issues it faces and thus to enable it to best fulfil its role with respect to the conservation of whale stocks and the management of whaling. Iceland is demonstrating that it will only target highly abundant whale stocks and manage the activity effectively to ensure it is sustainable. This fits well within the objectives of the discussions concerning the future of the IWC.

        4 Q: Does Iceland have a long whaling history?
        A: Utilisation of whale resources has been a traditional part of Iceland’s history, providing an important dietary component throughout the ages. Long before any international agreements on whale conservation the Icelandic Parliament (Althing) banned all whaling on species larger than minke whales in 1915, after a period of overexploitation from foreign land-stations in Iceland during the period 1883-1915. This Icelandic “moratorium” lasted, apart from some limited catches during 1935-1939, until 1948 when a licence was given to a single land-station. When commercial whaling was halted from 1986 it had a negative economic and social impact on communities dependent on whaling. In the years 1986-1989 Iceland conducted a scientific research program, including takes of a limited number of fin and sei whales. No whaling was conducted in the period of 1990-2002. During 2003-2007 Iceland implemented the common minke whale research program, including the take of a total of 200 common minke whales in this period.

        5 Q: How many whales has Iceland now decided to take?
        A: Iceland’s decision to continue sustainable whaling involves takes for a period of five years that shall be in accordance with scientific advice provided at least annually by the Marine Research Institute (MRI) The advice provided by the MRI is based on scientific stock assessments conducted by international scientific bodies such as the International Whaling Commission (IWC) and the North Atlantic Marine Mammal Commission (NAMMCO). According the last scientific assessments, the stocks of both fin and common minke whales around Iceland are considered to be close to pre-exploitation levels. The latest advice from the MRI is from June 2008 and takes into account a new survey conducted in 2007. The recommended Total Allowable Catch (TAC) for fin whales was 150 animals annually for the traditional whaling grounds west of Iceland and upto 200 if catches are more widely spread. For common minke whales MRI’s advice was changed from 400 animals in previous years to around 100 (107) in 2008. This advice was a precautionary measure as considerably fewer common minke whales were observed in the Icelandic continental shelf area in the 2007 than in previous years. This is most likely due to a temporal shift in distribution within the stock area, but because of unfavourable conditions, during large parts of the offshore component of he survey, a total estimate for the population could not be produced. A new minke whale survey is scheduled for the summer of 2009. The catches now issued are precautionary and will not have a significant impact on whale stocks. A responsible management system will ensure that the catch quotas set will not be exceeded. The catches are clearly sustainable and therefore consistent with the principle of sustainable development.

        6 Q: Why does Iceland conduct sustainable whaling?
        A: The position of Iceland has always been that whale stocks should be utilized in a sustainable manner like any other living marine resource. Icelandic policy on ocean issues is based on maintaining the future health, biodiversity and sustainability of the ocean surrounding Iceland, in order that it may continue to be a resource that supports and promotes the nation’s wellbeing. This involves conservation and management of the resources based on scientific knowledge and guided by respect for the marine ecosystem as a whole. Abundance estimates for both minke and fin whales around Iceland have been approved both by the Scientific Committee of the International Whaling Commission (IWC) and the Scientific Committee of the North Atlantic Marine Mammal Commission (NAMMCO). Both have been deemed abundant.

        7 Q: What will be the effect of the proposed whaling on the whale populations in question?
        A: Iceland has in collaboration with neighbouring countries in the North Atlantic conducted large scale sightings surveys at regular intervals since 1987. According to the latest fully evaluated survey, the number of fin whales in the Central North Atlantic is estimated at 25,800 animals and the total stock size of Central North-Atlantic minke whales is close to 70,000 animals, of which around 43,600 are in Icelandic coastal waters. Both these estimates have been agreed upon by consensus by the Scientific Committees of the International Whaling Commission (IWC) and the North Atlantic Marine Mammal Commission (NAMMCO). Both populations are believed to be close to pre-exploitation levels and estimated sustainable annual catch levels were 200 and 400 fin and minke whales respectively. A survey conducted in 2007 yielded a fin whale estimate of 20,600 that was not significantly different from the 2001 estimate. The coverage of the 2007 survey was insufficient for a reliable estimation of minke whale abundance in the total stock area. However, densities of common minke whales were much lower than previously on the continental shelf area. Although this is most likely the result of a temporal shift in distribution due to changes in prey abundance the MRI recommended a significant reduction in TAC (Total Allowable Catches) as a precautionary measures. The fundamental basis for any advice from the MRI is long-term sustainability and thus the catch limits now issued will not have significant impact on these abundant whale populations. A responsible management system will ensure that the catches are sustainable and that catch quotas will not be exceeded. Regular sightings surveys will be continued to monitor the development of the whale stocks. The next such survey will be conducted in 2009. Catch quotas will be adjusted accordingly to ensure long-term sustainability.

        8 Q: Why are fin whales listed as endangered in the IUCN red list of threatened species?
        A: The IUCN red list of threatened species is based on a global perspective regarding the status of species. Thus a single classification is made for a species, irrespective of the status of individual populations. Fin whales have several separate populations (stocks) in each of all the major ocean areas. These are of highly variable status and there is no interchange of whales between major ocean areas.
        Such a global perspective, merging independent stocks together, is inconsistent with general practice of scientifically based management of fisheries. The use of IUCN criteria on fin whales in the Central North Atlantic (EGI population) would not lead to their classification as endangered or threatened. The abundance estimate for fin whales in the Central North Atlantic has been agreed by consensus by the Scientific Committee of the International Whaling Commission (IWC) and the Scientific Committee of the North Atlantic Marine Mammal Commission (NAMMCO). According to the last assessment by the Scientific Committee of NAMMCO the stock is close to pristine size and thus neither endangered nor threatened. As can be seen on the IUCN webpage, IUCN acknowledges that fin whales in the North Atlantic are abundant and that the listing is based on uncertainty regarding fin whales in the Southern Ocean. “Most of the global decline over the last three generations is attributable to the major decline in the Southern Hemisphere. The North Atlantic subpopulation may have increased, while the trend in the North Pacific subpopulation is uncertain.” See:

        9 Q: Are 100 animals a high proportion of the minke whale stock in Icelandic coastal waters and are 150 animals a high proportion of the number of fin whales in the Central North Atlantic?
        A: No. The total stock size of Central North-Atlantic minke whales is close to 70,000 animals, according to the latest abundance estimate for the whole stock area (2001 survey). The 2007 survey failed to cover large parts of the stock areas, and estimates for the continental shelf area was considerably lower than in previous surveys (10,700 or 15,100 depending on methods). The number of fin whales in the Central North Atlantic is estimated at around 20,600 animals. These abundance estimates have been agreed by consensus by the Scientific Committee of the International Whaling Commission (IWC) and/or the Scientific Committee of the North Atlantic Marine Mammal Commission (NAMMCO). The takes of 100 minke whales and 150 fin whales equal less only 1% of the minke whales in Icelandic coastal waters even under the highly unlikely assumption that there were no minke whales in the extensive unsurveyed areas and 0.73% of fin whales in the Central North Atlantic. The catches are clearly sustainable and therefore consistent with the principle of sustainable development.

        10 Q: Is Iceland also conducting research whaling?
        A: No. The implementation of the research plan on minke whales was completed in 2007 when the originally set sample size of 200 minke whales was achieved. However, scientific research on cetaceans will continue in other forms in order to closely monitor the health of Iceland’s marine ecosystem.

        11 Q: Is the management of whaling not a task for the International Whaling Commission (IWC)?
        A: Iceland would prefer global management of whaling but unfortunately IWC has poven to be dysfunctional in recent times. The IWC has not been able to fulfil its role in the management of whaling as it is obliged to do according to the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling. This is despite the fact that the Scientific Committee of the IWC agreed on the scientific aspects of a management scheme seventeen years ago. There are discussions ongoing within the IWC on the future of the organisation which aim at assisting the Commission to arrive at a consensus solution to the main issues it faces and thus to enable it to best fulfil its role with respect to the conservation of whale stocks and the management of whaling. Iceland has been an active contributer and hopes these efforts will be fruitful and will lead to the IWC managing whaling in the near future. Until such a conclusion has been reached, the IWC is not able to manage whaling, and Iceland needs to use other options.

        12 Q: Has the Scientific Committee of the IWC expressed opposition to the proposed catches?
        A: No. The Scientific Committee of the IWC has not discussed this particular decision. However, the Scientific Committee has formally accepted the abundance estimates of 25,800 and 20,600 fin whales in the Central North Atlantic from the 2001 and 2007 surveys respectively. The Scientific Committee has also accepted an abundance estimate of 43,600 for minke whales in the continental shelf area around Iceland and the partial estimate of 10,700 in 2007. The allowed catches now constitute only 1% and 0.73%, respectively, of the lowest of these accepted estimates for minke and fin whales, ,well below generally accepted values for sustainable yield of whale stocks.

        13 Q: Does Iceland engage in international trade in whale products?
        A: Whale products should be treated in the same way as any other seafood products. Icelandic whale products are likely to be consumed both domestically and overseas. Iceland has been engaged in international trade in whale products. In recent years our trading parties have included Norway and Japan. Any international trade in Icelandic whale products is conducted in accordance with Iceland’s obligations under international law.

        14 Q: Are there any reasons why whale products should rather be consumed domestically than be subject to international trade?
        A: In Iceland’s view, the question of international trade has no bearing on the management of whaling or whale conservation. What matters is how many whales are taken, not where they are consumed after they are taken. Iceland does not support the view that international trade is fundamentally bad, neither regarding whale products nor other, legally traded products. Nor does Iceland support trade discrimination between large and small countries. The sustainability of the catches is determined by the level of the catches and has nothing whatsoever to do with what distance the products are transported before they are used. However, there are two reasons one can have for opposing international trade in sustainably taken whale products. Firstly, one could feel that only large countries should be allowed to conduct whaling while countries that have small domestic markets should not. Using this discriminatory reasoning, one could for example conclude that large countries such as the USA and Japan could conduct whaling while small countries like Iceland and the Faroe Islands could not. Secondly, one could feel that international trade in general were a bad thing and should be minimised. This anti-market reasoning not only applies to international trade in whale products but to all international trade, such as trade in textiles, food products and industrial products. Iceland strongly opposes both of these arguments. Iceland feels it is important to ensure the sustainability of the utilisation of living marine resources, but this goal should not be used to justify inappropriate trade barriers and trade discrimination.

        15 Q: How humane are hunting methods for whales?
        A: The methods used for hunting whales in Icelandic coastal waters are the best available. No high-speed chase is involved and most of the animals die without realising that they are being hunted. Statistics from Norway, where the same methods are used, show that around 80% of the animals die instantly upon being hit. An overwhelming majority of the remaining 20% die within minutes. The methods used ensure that the catches are done in the quickest and most humane way possible and that suffering is minimised. In fact, these methods are more effective and humane than those used for hunting other large mammals, such as deer.

        16 Q: Do other countries catch whales?
        A: Yes. Several countries catch whales, even on a much bigger scale than Iceland. The United States has for instance a five year block quota of 280 bowhead whales from a stock of less than 10,000 animals. Of those who, like Iceland, operate within the International Whaling Commission (IWC) the biggest whaling countries by numbers and volume are the United States, Russia, Norway, Japan and Greenland. Like Iceland’s, all those whaling operations are sustainable and legal and in accordance with the rules of the IWC. Like most countries, Iceland strongly opposes unsustainable whaling operations and supports the protection of whale stocks that are threatened.

        17 Q: Are Icelanders in favour of whaling?
        A: Opinion polls have through the years consistently shown around ¾ of Icelanders are in favour of sustainable whaling. According to the latest such poll, conduted by Gallup in February 2009, 77.4 % of those who expressed an opinion where in favour of sustainable whaling.

        18 Q: Are there reasons to be concerned about the health impacts of whale meat?
        A: There are no reasons to fear negative health impacts from consuming whale meat. All marine organisms, particularly long-living species high in the food chain, have measurable levels of contaminants. Relatively high values have been found in some toothed cetaceans, as well as in some commercially exploited fish species such as tuna and halibut. However, baleen whales are at a low level in the food chain. Therefore, they contain pollutants at generally much lower values. Analysis of meat and blubber for pollutants in Icelandic fin and minke whales, both of which are baleen whales, have shown levels well below residue limits stipulated for food.
        On the contrary studies have shown whale products to represent high quality food regarding nutrients and bioactive components beneficial for human health. The meat is lean and it’s fat is rich in Omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids. Additionally, like other seafood, the meat is of high quality protein and rich in essential minerals and some vitamins. The blubber, a fatty tissue, is very rich in Omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids.

        19 Q: Has sustainable whaling had a negative impact on tourism in Iceland?
        A: Statistics show that the number of tourists to Iceland has increased at the same time Iceland has been conducting sustainable and research whaling. Negative impact has therefore not been distinguishable and whaling does not seem to have affected tourism to Iceland in any way.

        20 Q: Has sustainable whaling had a negative impact on whale-watching in Iceland?
        A: In Iceland´s sustainable whaling only highly abundant stocks are to be harvested. Then there will be special areas designated for whale-watching to minimize the risk of conflicts between the whale-watching industry and the whaling industry.
        There are hopes that whaling and whale-watching can coexist with good cooperation between the parties involved. This has been the case in other countries where whale-watching and whaling are practiced side by side.

        Prepared by the Ministry of Fisheries and Agriculture, in March 2009.”

        Its good to know both sides of the story.

        I am not trying to get you to like whaling i am only trying to get you to ask yourself a question and go look for it. Not take the questions and answers set out by Paul Watson and his crew as lies coming out of there mouth to gain personlly for sea shepherd is nothing more then a complete BS.

        We need people who are willing to see the both side of the coin then people can do something about it. Until this will go in circles like this has done since the 1970’s

        If you are willing to help stop whaling then please do it on your own term and fight with your own words and with the truth. Until people fight with the truth whaling will be done in Iceland, USA, Norway, Japan and many other places.

        take care!

        • Alex
          March 29 2013

          Well, to start with your first point, I have seen Idiot Abroad a few times and I definitely think they arrange things on that show that are not available for typical tourists. But really, I have never attempted any research into this issue so I don’t know anything about it. And no, I don’t think that only tourists eat the whale meat in Iceland — but according to the sources I cite in my post, they do eat a whole 40% of it! According to another study also cited in my post, only 3-5% of Icelanders eat whale meat regularly.

          And to address a point raised in the Q and A you posted in your response, I think its overlooking a lot of evidence to say that whaling has no effect on tourism in Iceland. It’s certainly not stopping most people (I still went!) but as shown in stories I linked to in my post, tour companies have had customers cancel trips and many independent travelers, including some commenters here, have made pledges not to visit until whaling ceases. I also disagree with their answer that there is a humane way to kill whales; several international animal welfare groups dispute this heavily.

          There are always two sides to every story, and as I admit in this story I cringed at Sea Shephard’s heavy handed (and failed) attempts to halt whaling in Iceland. Yet I do agree with their ultimate mission: I don’t believe that in this day and age, with all that we know about the intelligence and emotional capacity of these animals and the threatened state of the oceans that any nation should engage in whaling.

  • SB
    April 16 2013


    Thank you for such and informative write-up. I just came back from Iceland, and I was naïve to the fact that they were still whaling and if I had known, I don’t think I would have visited at all. I did all the main tourist things to do and I thought what a beautiful country (glaciers, geysers, blue lagoon, horse-back riding), and the fact that most of the country runs on geothermal “clean” energy, I was so surprised to realize that restaurants were serving whale. I guess I thought they were progressive and all for the preservation of their natural environment and here they are ruining natural resources – it seems like an oxymoronic thing to do. Yes, and many tourists are OK to try it – very, very, sad to say, even some in my group were OK trying it – they stated it was all about the “experience” and telling others that they “tried whale” – just horrible. I had intentions of taking my husband to visit Iceland – but until they decide to stop killing whale I won’t visit again.

    • Alex
      April 17 2013

      Hi SB, thanks for chiming in! I think it’s important for Iceland to realize that there are true consequences to the continuation, such as tourists like you not returning to the country. It’s a beautiful country and I hope you have a chance to return with a clean conscience soon!

  • Mim
    April 19 2013

    Thanks for your posting Alex and thanks to everyone for their responses.

    I am headed to Greenland this summer and will be stopping in Iceland briefly first.

    I am always keen to try the traditional food of an area but have my limits. I refused to eat shark fin soup at a wedding a few years back. Some people at our table ate without guilt, some ate only because they felt it would be rude not to, and the rest of us just outright refused.

    I recognize that there are arguments for and against whaling in Iceland but I have read enough to know I don’t feel comfortable eating whale. My stop-over in Iceland will be whale-meat-free.

    • Alex
      April 19 2013

      Mim, I’m so glad to hear you say that! I know that at a wedding with shark fin soup I would not be physically capable of eating it. If that offended the hosts I would be upset by that, but there are some lines I won’t cross and that’s one! Kudos to you for sticking by what you believe in.

  • Ryan
    August 7 2013

    Hi Alex! I visited Iceland earlier this year and have been wondering about whaling and whether I should have sampled whale while I was there (I did). We were staying with locals and they took us out to dinner ,where they suggested we had the whale and horse. They first spent time talking about the sustainability of whaling.

    Thought I’d just post on this blog for others that might still stumble across this. Here are my thoughts/personal opinions on this topic…

    1) The minke whale is not endangered, so I can rule that out as being a factor.

    2) Is it ethical to kill a mammal and eat it? Sure! We eat pigs, cows, chickens…and in Iceland and other countries, horse! As long as the killing is humane (which it is), I don’t have a problem with this.

    3) I am a little confused over the fact that only 3-5% of Icelanders eat whale regularly. Key word here is “regularly”. How many Americans eat lamb regularly? Do you have to it weekly? Monthly? Does having it on Easter and maybe a couple times throughout the year count as regular? No? Well then should we stop killing lamb? I think this statistic is very misleading. A better statistic is that only 1.1% of Icelanders eat whale meat once a week or more. I’d venture to say that in the U.S. less than that eat venison once a week…which again, doesn’t mean that people don’t eat it.
    4) I understand that a large portion of the take is sold to tourists…but what in it of itself is wrong with that? Unless there’s a specific reason that one can point to in the first place on why we shouldn’t eat whale, who cares who’s eating it? and the kicker….

    Over a 500,000 tourists visit Iceland each year. Only 300,000 people live in Iceland. Doesn’t it make sense that tourists are consuming more whale meat than Icelanders?


    • Alex
      August 7 2013

      Hey Ryan! Thanks for your input. I have responded to my opinion on most of these points in my post, but I do have just a few things I’d like to note.

      1) “The minke whale is not endangered, so I can rule that out as being a factor.”

      Well, dogs aren’t endangered either, but I wouldn’t eat them. I get that this is a personal preference.

      2) “Is it ethical to kill a mammal and eat it? Sure! We eat pigs, cows, chickens…and in Iceland and other countries, horse! As long as the killing is humane (which it is), I don’t have a problem with this.”

      I strongly disagree that there is a humane way to kill whales, as do the experts on this subject that I have quoted in this post.

      4) “I understand that a large portion of the take is sold to tourists…but what in it of itself is wrong with that? Unless there’s a specific reason that one can point to in the first place on why we shouldn’t eat whale, who cares who’s eating it? and the kicker…”

      What is wrong with that, in my opinion, is that eating whale meat is being sold to tourists as an authentic, historical Icelandic experience. I think the statistics on who is actually eating the majority of whale meat shows that this is a false narrative — but rather very cunning advertising by the whaling industry.

  • Atli
    January 15 2014

    1) Iceland is not violating any international law by whaling. I know it is difficult for americans to understand, but your governments position on a specific matter doesn’t automatically translate into international law. Each specific country has to expressly content to a treaty or individual provisions of it. So there is no violation of international law at all.

    2) Icelanders are particularly careful about their fishing stocks, and almost always follow the advice of the Marine Research Institute ( regarding catch levels and conservation measures. There is no exception with the whale hunting, and the number of whales being killed, does not endanger the species or exploit it by any means.

    I just had to make an effort to correct those two things, that were so blatantly incorrect in the article. But I could go on and on.

    • Alex
      January 17 2014

      Atli, I make a massive effort to respond to all commenters with respect and kindness. But a comment starting with “it’s difficult for Americans to understand…” is condescending and not off to a good start. Iceland is violating the IWC agreement against whaling. It has nothing to do with the US’s position on whaling (other than the fact that they too signed the IWC agreement).

      I think the heart of my post (or at least what I intended it to be) is not that whales will be endangered by this hunting. It is that tourists are supporting a cruel industry under the guise that they are doing “as the locals do” — and statistics show that’s a crock.

  • maldives blogger
    November 2 2014

    Its simply horrific to watch these awesome creatures being killed mercilessly. We have lot of whales in Maldives. We do not kill them, but we swim with them, take pictures and show them to tourists. Whales are awesome creatures of nature. Please do not take everything for food just because you can eat. Have some respect to other living things.

    • Alex
      November 4 2014

      Glad to hear the Maldives is practicing responsible tourism. Thanks for commenting!

  • Isabel
    January 7 2015

    I don’t really know how much time you spent on this text (I can only imagine that it was hours of work), but I would like to thank you either way for writing it. It’s difficult to comprise so much information on controversial topics in one comprehensive text, and you did it so well. It is so easy to read, and so easy to follow your train of thought. I haven’t really read anything on this issue before, but now I feel so much more informed. I completely agree with you and think it is such an important topic. Thank you!

    • Alex
      January 8 2015

      Thank you for this, Isabel. It was indeed hours of work, but it felt fun because I’m passionate on the subject! I’m glad I have a platform to share things like this that are important to me.

  • Sandra
    January 28 2015

    This is the best article I have ever read on the subject, so thank you. I will be going to Iceland for work next week, and am very concerned over both the horse and the whale options, to the point of not wanting to give patronage to establishments that serve either, and yet facing extreme opposition from my co-workers and management because of this stance. Your article has helped me to better articulate both sides of the issue to greater effect, and indeed strengthen my resolve to not support such a barbaric industry. Thank you for the thoughtful and well written piece!

    • Alex
      January 28 2015

      You are so welcome, Sandra. Maybe try sending to your colleagues. I’d be interested to hear their opposition after reading the facts 🙂

  • Genevieve
    July 3 2015

    Hi Alex – Brilliant post, I think you’ve discussed a very sensitive issue tactfully and fairly, without beating around the bush either. I think it’s awesome that you can have such a range of content on your blog, and yet it all still feels authentic.

    What I think is even more impressive is the way you’ve dealt with the comments – particularly the odd rude one! It must be frustrating when people can’t discern between respectfully disagreeing and being a d*ck 🙂

    You defended your beliefs really well in the comments. I really admire the way you were open to others opinions and were respectful of people who don’t agree with you, but you also stood up for yourself when a few people were kinda rude. More people need to have important conversations like this! 🙂

    Love your work!

    • Alex
      July 7 2015

      Thanks Genevieve, that means a lot! When I read Tripadvisor reviews I am always impressed with business owners who can respond to rude reviews with grace and tact, and I try to do the same with anyone who takes the time to contribute to the conversation here. Appreciate you appreciating it 🙂

  • Charlotte G
    October 27 2015

    I am visiting Iceland this week and definitely will not be eating any Whale meat, it’s shocking how easily tourists can be roped into it.

    I have also read that supporting whale watching tours is a good move as a tourist.

    Thank you so much for this post 🙂

    • Alex
      October 27 2015

      You’re so welcome Charlotte — and thank you for making that decision!

  • Jesse Kelly
    March 1 2016

    I really wanted to visit Iceland after seeing its amazing landscapes portrayed in so many movies. After learning that Iceland is a whaling nation, I came upon this very detailed and thoughtful article while researching the issue. I am so strongly against the murder of whales that I could not, in good conscience, visit Iceland until the country permanently bans whaling.

    By the way, isn’t Denmark/Faroe Islands a fourth country that systematically kills whales? Pilot whales and even dolphins are no different intellectually from other cetaceans except in size.

    • Alex
      March 3 2016

      Hey Jesse, thanks for the thoughtful comment. From my understanding, The Faroe Islands do kill whales (they are a territory of Denmark though culturally and geographically different and Denmark itself does not). However, the pilot whale harvest there is not commercial harvest and exists only for communal food distribution among local households. Iceland, Japan and Norway are the only commercially whaling countries.

  • Laura Alice
    March 11 2016

    I somewhat loved this article. I say ‘somewhat’ because I thought it was well researched and eloquent I don’t like certain very important aspects you forgot to include.

    I recently made my own blog post addressing ‘activists’ against whaling and how I believe the majority of them are ignoring the animal cruelty that goes on in their own countries for a chance to condemn those in different cultures. It’s plain xenophobic to be against whaling when you’re not against the consumption of cows, pigs, chickens and the number of ‘acceptable’ food animals. It’s speciesist to pick and choose which animals are to be loved and which ones are to be food.

    Yes, you could argue that whales are endangered, but as of last month, the only endangered whales in the consumer whaling market were fin whales and that has since been banned. Minke whales are still being slaughtered, unfortunately, but they are not endangered so does this mean we should stop caring?

    I’m grateful for the fact you’re against whaling but you can surely see how hypocritical I think you’re being when you eat meat and dairy.

    I realise this blog post is very old but this is a topic that is still ongoing and something I’m very passionate about. And despite everything, I think it’s the best article you’ve written.

    • Alex
      March 12 2016

      Hey Laura, thanks for the kudos on this post! I really respect the dedication of vegans and think it is great you stand up for what you believe in. I do too! And our values are just a little different. I know that vegans don’t agree with this but I DO think there’s a difference between eating cows and chickens and eating whales and dogs. I suppose I just feel a stronger emotional connection to the latter. They register in different levels of my brain in the same way that killing a mosquito doesn’t even cause a blip on my radar while hitting a squirrel or god forbid, someone’s pet with my car or motorbike would absolutely devastate me.

      I will never be vegan. Never. I actually do sometimes flirt with the idea of being vegetarian and eat less and less meat all the time. But eating eggs doesn’t make me feel hypocritical in the slightest for fighting the idea of slaughtering one of the planet’s most majestic and graceful creatures. We’re on the same side on this one, whether you want this meat eater on your team or not 🙂

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