The Value of a Whale

A minke whale steak served in Reykjavik

In a dimly lit restaurant, complete with flowers, candles and an oceanic theme, morals were swallowed and a minke whale steak eaten. But why was that steak different from a cow or pig steak? The answer depends on which side of the table you are sitting.

By Stephanie Bishop-Hall

Australia is a vocally anti-whaling nation. Icelander’s, on the other hand, largely support whaling for its perceived cultural, historical and economic value. These values are contended by some in Iceland and defended by others.

Recent history

Maria Bjork Gunnarsdottir, Marketing Manager at Elding Whale Watching argues that, “Commercial whaling in Iceland by Icelanders started in the nineteen-hundreds, so it’s not a historical part.”

Minke Whaler, Gunnar Bergman Jonsson also concedes, “It is not a traditional thing in Iceland to hunt whales.”

Protecting the fish

Olafur Bjornsson, ex-fisherman and whaling watching operator argues that it is important to hunt whales because they effect the fishing industry. “The whales are eating far more fish than we ourselves can fish…we don’t want them in our fishing area.”

Kristjan Loftsson, owner of the fin whaling company, Hvalur H/F agrees, saying, “They have to eat a lot, if you have a big predator like the whale then that will have an impact. You have to have management.”

But Ms Gunnarsdottir argues this is not a justification to hunt whales, stating, “We have to look at the whole picture, even though the whales might be competing with the fish for food they are also doing some good work, because it is always a balance in nature. I don’t think it is our job to be the god and try to change things.”

A tourist menu in Reykjavik

Island culture, resources and the economy

“It is normal, we are using nature all around us, why not whales?” Mr Bjornsson asks.

“It’s a marine resource that can be exploited in a sustainable manner just like any other stock that we are exploiting in the sea, and of course Iceland is reliant on the sea,” comments Gisli Vikingsson, Head of Cetacean Research at the Marine Research Institute in Iceland.

Kristjan Loftsson agrees with Mr Vikingsson’s statement, adding, “You have to see that if you live on an island like Iceland, we don’t have many possibilities here. You manage what you have.”

Ms Gunnarsdottir from Elding Whale Watching disagrees, arguing, “There isn’t a market for whale meat in Iceland, it is being presented to tourists as a traditional food but it is not that traditional. I think they have just learnt that Icelandic people are not going to eat it so they have to promote it to other people.”

A poll conducted by the Gallup organisation shows that only 1-5 percent of Icelander’s admit to eating whale meat regularly.

This year, Iceland’s whale meat export market also collapsed in the wake of the Japanese tsunami. Hvalur H/F exports over half of its fin whale catch to Japan, but due to the Japanese market, no fin whales were caught this year.

As the debate over the value of whaling in Iceland continues, Icelandic whalers have government issued permits to hunt whalers until the end of 2012.


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