Is Iceland's potential whaling ban a victory for environmentalists or a sign that economy triumphs above all?

Iceland have announced they are banning whaling, but is this due to environmentalists or economy?

Josh Smith
2nd March 2022
Sperm whales. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons
The Icelandic government have proposed phasing out commercial whaling by 2024. This is much smaller of a statement than it seems — they currently have one boat. Nonetheless, the statement is a positive one, a sign of a bright future for the ever-hunted whale. Or is it?

In reality, the decision was made less by whale conservationists and more by Japan, an age-old enemy of the whales. One of Iceland’s biggest customers is Japan, who use whale meat everywhere from school dinners to sashimi.

Japan partially supplies their own demand through their own whaling fleets, but the International Whaling Commission (IWC) restricts all whale hunting to preserve whale stocks. This was initially tackled by giving ‘scientists’ a boat with “RESEARCH” printed (in English) on the side, then letting them harpoon whales in the name of knowledge. This approach bypasses IWC restrictions, through Article VIII, which states countries may "kill, take and treat whales for purposes of scientific research". A better solution to the issue of sourcing whale meat was found by the Japanese government: Jexit.

Japan left the IWC in 2018, a few months after the IWC declined Japan’s proposition to renew commercial whaling. Unlike its namesake, Jexit will likely be economically invigorating, giving Japan free reign over the whales in their territory. Commercial whaling (without decals) resumed on July 1, 2019 in Japan.

The decision was made less by whale conservationists and more by Japan, an age-old enemy of the whales

So, to return to Iceland, the decision to downsize whaling after 2018 and cease it by 2024 appears connected to their biggest customer finding their own supply, then competing with Iceland for exports. It is slightly sad to see an industry so historically connected to Iceland expire, not with a bang but a whimper. Iceland does have plenty more profitable exports however, like aluminium and Björk.

Alternatively, Iceland could maintain their historic interdependence to whales and resort to whale watching, the next logical expansion. They are already a leading figure in this industry and the title “0% chance of seeing a harpooning” is bound to help the tourism industry bring in more non-sadist whale lovers.

This whale ban change comes at a vital time in Iceland's history. Since the 2007 recession, Iceland has struggled significantly, so any growth strategy would be welcome by the population. Additionally, if more countries become economically bound to whale conservation, through whale watching’s tourism boost, it will finally be in countries’ best interests to care about the survival of whales.

Japan, on the other hand, will only grow their whaling monopoly exponentially if the current trends go unhampered. The comical “RESEARCH” decals will stay, likely to save face and also because the boat designs have already been paid for. The justification of whaling for science will also stay. In fact, when they left the IWC, they cited the commission’s failure to ensure “sustainable hunting” (since the ban was intended to only be a temporary measure in the eyes of Japan), so their heartfelt concern for sustaining the whale is clearly still upheld.

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