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(London, UK. – 8 May 2023) – An unprecedented Icelandic government study shows over 40% of whales killed during the country’s most recent whaling season suffered slow and painful deaths, and did not die instantly, according to a new report released today by the Icelandic Food and Veterinary Authority (MAST).
“Whatever their views on whaling, both Icelanders and the international community will be horrified by these findings”, said Patrick Ramage, Senior Director at IFAW. “No animal – however it is killed - should suffer for such a long time. Whales are sentient, intelligent and complex creatures that suffer both physically and psychologically during this traumatic massacre. This new evidence underscores how outdated this practice is. It has to end immediately—no one in Iceland is dependent on this meat.”
“The people of Iceland are as shocked as everyone,” IFAW Icelandic Representative Sigursteinn Masson said. “This level of cruelty and suffering is unacceptable.”
Footage taken during the 2022 Icelandic fin whaling season where 148 whales were killed, was analysed by experts, focusing on the time it takes for a harpooned whale to die (‘time to death’). The video-evidence documented the killing of 58 fin whales (listed as ‘vulnerable’) and showed almost every other whale did not die instantaneously.
The median survival time it took for whales to die that weren’t killed instantly was 11.5 minutes and almost a quarter of whales had to be harpooned a second time. In one case, an animal struggled for two hours before eventually being considered dead.
In addition to this, of 148 whales killed, 73% were female, with 11 being pregnant, and one lactating.
The surveillance footage also reveals that one whale was pursued for five hours with a harpoon in its back, and ultimately escaped severely injured.
“The suffering whales endure during this hunt is unimaginable. Last year we saw images of a fin whale returning to shore with four harpoons in its body, demonstrating the inherent cruelty happening at sea.” adds Ramage. The gruesome evidence is in; commercial whaling is inhumane, unnecessary and must end. Living whales are far more valuable to the marine ecosystem and to the whale watching industry than they are served up on a plate. We call on the government of Iceland to end this slaughter for good.”
The report was carried out as a result of new whaling rules announced by the Minister of Fisheries & Agriculture, Svandís Svavarsdóttir, in July last year. The rules forced the last commercial whaler in Iceland, Kristjan Loftsson, and his whaling company Hvalur hf to accept representatives of Iceland’s Fisheries Directorate on board with surveillance cameras to film the hunt. The Icelandic Food and Veterinary Authority (MAST), which wrote the report, is in charge of the surveillance, both on board whaling vessels and at the whaling – access the report here and press statement here. The research began halfway through last year’s whaling season.
The whalers of Hvalur hf resumed fin whaling in 2009 and have since killed 993 fin whales. The whale meat is exported, chiefly for the Japanese market. Currently Iceland has a self-issued whaling quota block in place, which will expire at the end of 2023, after which time a new 5-year quota would need to be authorised by the Fisheries Minister.
During the hunt, a whale is chased by whalers until a grenade-tipped harpoon can be fired from the whaling vessel. The harpoon should penetrate about a metre into the whale, where it should explode and release spring-loaded claws into the flesh. The explosion is intended to create enough energy to kill or knock out the whale. However, this is dependent on where on the whale’s body the harpoon hits, and so the whale may not be killed immediately. In addition, some harpoons do not explode.
This “time to death” analysis is not the only evidence of the suffering involved of harpooned whales, but confirms and quantifies the extreme prolonged time it takes for whales to die. This is a result of their biological build—as diving mammals, they have evolved to ensure oxygenated blood reaches their brains even in times of severe stress. Consequently, a whale may be mistaken for dead, or appear limp but could still be conscious.
IFAW is calling on the Icelandic authorities to bring an end to whaling and issue no further whaling licences or quotas after this year.
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Notes to Editors:
- Images are available here.
- More than 1,900 fin and minke whales have been killed in Iceland since the International Whaling Commission (IWC) moratorium on commercial whaling came into effect in 1986.
- Fin whales are the second largest mammals on earth, growing on average up to 20 metres long and weighing about 38 to 50 tonnes. They are fast swimmers and are only surpassed in size by blue whales. Globally the species is considered Vulnerable on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.
- In 1982, the International Whaling Commission (IWC) took a decision to set zero catch limits for all commercial whaling (i.e. the commercial whaling moratorium). This came into force in 1986, but unlike other whaling nations, Iceland did not take out an ‘objection’ to this decision – instead, once the ban was in place, it continued a small “scientific whaling” programme until 1989. Iceland abruptly left the IWC in 1992 but re-joined in 2002, this time taking out a ‘reservation’ against the moratorium. Iceland recommenced commercial whaling under its IWC moratorium reservation in 2006, resulting in a self-allocated quota of fin and minke whales.
- Further renewals of the five-year whaling quotas could continue to strain Iceland’s international relations including with the US, which has had diplomatic sanctions (so-called Pelly Amendment sanctions) in place against Iceland since 2014 due to its commercial whaling activities and international whale meat trade.
IFAW scientists analysed footage of Japan killing whales in the Southern Ocean which tells a similar story of the inherent cruelty of whaling. The resulting scientific paper is entitled “Is Japan’s whaling humane?” which can be accessed here.
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