Youth advocates rally together as whaling resumes off the coast of Iceland
Despite outrage from Icelanders and a large international community of environmental advocates, whales off the shores of the country are at risk yet again after the Icelandic government allowed commercial whaling to resume on Sept. 1, 2023. This follows a brief, temporary ban from Iceland’s Prime Minister of Food, Agriculture and Fisheries, Svandís Svavarsdóttir.
As hit artist Björk stood behind a DJ booth, her music filled a busy square as whale bones and roses scattered the ground. Dozens of roses were placed around the space representing the 148 fin whales killed off the coast of Iceland the previous season. The crowd was filled with young and old, natives and tourists gathered to make their sentiments about whaling known.
Ida Harris, a 17-year-old Icelander, stood proudly in a bustling crowd in downtown Reykjavík, the capital city of Iceland, wielding a sign at a protest. Her light, curly hair framed her young face and pale skin while her eyes were alive with passion for a cause she has dedicated years of activism efforts toward.
“[Whales] decrease the amount of greenhouse gas emissions,” she said. “On the animal cruelty front, it’s completely inhumane.”
Whales are the only carbon-sequestering organisms in the ocean comparable to the role of large trees on land. Studies find that the natural death of a great whale sequesters significant amounts of CO2. As a whale falls to the bottom of the ocean, approximately 33 tons of CO2 is captured and not resealed back into the atmosphere, while a tree only absorbs an average of 48 pounds of CO2 annually. Furthermore, phytoplankton, which contribute 50 percent of oxygen to the atmosphere, feed on whale waste and cultivate a cycle of fostering phytoplankton growth.
The 2022 whaling season was the first to be officially documented and audited by the Icelandic Government. Despite explosive harpoons being used to hunt these whales, results showed 41% of whales were not killed in an immediate and painless manner as required by current whaling regulations.
According to the Professional Council on Animal Welfare, “When hunting large whales, it is not possible to meet the conditions necessary to ensure the welfare of animals during killing.” Therefore, the hunting of whales does not align with the provisions outlined in the Animal Welfare Act.
A report on the economic impact of whaling showed that Hvalur hf., the last remaining whaling company operating in Icelandic waters, has not turned a profit in years. This is largely in part to a widespread decrease in demand for whale meat and byproducts. In fact, this disinterest is coupled with restrictions across 183 countries on the transportation and trade of whale products by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES).
Harris encourages visitors to Iceland to boycott restaurants serving whale meat. She says it does not represent the culture of a modern Iceland.
“Whaling in Iceland has no cultural significance. It is not a historic thing like people like to say it is. Icelanders have been very recently modernized,” Harris said. “Old Icelanders have never eaten whales, caught whales, done anything with whales. Just us now.”
A board member of the Youth Environmental Association of Iceland and an active participant in the Fridays for Future protests, Harris has advocated for environmental justice and change since she was just 13 years old. Now she and other environmental organizations in Iceland have resumed protests against whaling after the ban was lifted on Sept. 1, 2023.
“We demand a revocation of the whaling license and that these brutal killings be stopped and banned once and for all,” the organization Hvalavinir Stop Whaling in Iceland stated, accompanying a global petition.
Local Icelanders are not the only activists working against the whaling industry. 26-year-old American Lillian Seibert spent her fourth time visiting the Land of Fire and Ice at a whaling boycott. After she knelt down to sign her neat signature, denoting her defiance to the industry, she took photos and videos to share with her thousands of Instagram followers.
“Culture evolves, and some things go out of fashion when they go out of necessity,” Seibert said, glancing around the crowd of tourists and Icelanders. “I think that that’s just part of the growth of culture that becomes part of your history.”
While not native to Iceland, Seibert said she has dedicated her travels to sustainable tourism practices. A petition to ban whaling in Iceland that was shared in Reykjavik and online has now garnered over half a million signatures from all over the world. Much of this initiative was led by young activists fighting for the rights of animals and for their right to a healthy world.
Hvalur hf.’s permit to hunt fin whales will expire in December of 2023. Activists are hopeful that their work to stop whaling once and for all will take root in 2024. A bill has been proposed in the Icelandic Parliament to shut down whaling operations.
“It is proposed to make whaling illegal by repealing the Act on whaling, no. 26/1949, and bring whales under the law on the protection, preservation, and hunting of wild birds and wild mammals, no. 64/1994,” according to the bill.
Anti-whaling groups like Hvalavinir-Stop whaling in Iceland have continued to organize gatherings in recent weeks, mobilizing followers on social media to continue protesting the whaling permits and speak in support of the proposed bill.
“I’ve always been really passionate about the health of this planet and how intertwined it is with human existence. Any species that we share this planet with has just as much of a right to be here as we do. So, I’m for stopping whaling. I think everyone else here can agree with that too,” Seibert said with a nod, grinning as she scanned the crowd of passionate environmentalists.