Monday, July 18, 2011

Everything You've Heard about Iceland is Wrong...Sort of...Part 3. Whaling

So guess what? The memory card for my Nikon got corrupted or reformatted or joined a cult and drank and Kool-Aid. I don't know. I'm not tech-savvy at all. It's a miracle I can use the internet. I still have my small point and shoot, but it only works about half of the time, and when the weather is absolutely perfect with no humidity, heat, or cold. (Just want to shout out to Sony for a second. I've had this DSC-W7 since 2005 and it has been a real trooper. It's been abused it for six years at the bottom of every purse/backpack I carry, attached to a hip bag that I wore riding trains and rolling around on the ground, taken out in all weather, and tossed around like a Nerf ball. And it still takes beautiful photos. Even though it's been protesting it's unfair treatment for the last couple of years, it has never failed me enough to warrant replacing it. So good job, Sony, for making an extremely durable and tolerant little camera. I'm impressed.)
I bring this up because this blog has always been pretty photo-heavy, but I'm gonna have to start pulling from the archives until I get a replacement. My friend, Graham, is sending me one out of the continued kindness of his heart, but it won't get here for another couple of weeks. So until then...

OK, on to business. Part 3: Whaling.

There are two kinds of whale meat available in Iceland as of the commercial whaling moratorium lift in 2006. One comes from the minke whale, and the other from the the fin whale. Minke whales are a type of baleen whale, and they are more commonly hunted. The quota is 30 whales per year out of a population of about 174,000. Fin whales suffer an annual population decline of nine members out of their estimated 30,000. They are the second largest animal on the planet and are a threatened species.

The myth about whaling is that it an ancient practice and a traditional Icelandic food. This is completely untrue. Whaling in Iceland only began in the mid-1800s, and less than 5% of Icelanders regularly eat whale meat.
The whaling industry in this country was founded by a single man who started a single company called Hvalur (that means Whale). A lot of the meat is exported to Japan, but these days, sales are declining.
If you walk through downtown Reykjavík, you can see signs on many restaurants advertising "whale menus", and a "must" for every tourist is a visit to Sægreifinn, or The Sea Baron, where you can dine on rich lobster soup and various fish and whale kebabs. If you are a tourist passing through Iceland, you would definitely get the impression that whale is commonly consumed here and might have no problem trying it just for the cultural experience.

I want to take a moment to explain that I don't have any particular moral objections to eating whale meat. I think that if you are a meat-eater, you have no right to decide which meats are immoral and which meats are ok. An animal is an animal, and no animal is more special than any other. The way that a chicken or a cow is slaughtered and consumed is fundamentally identical to the way that a whale or a dog or a pony is processed.
Most tourists who eat whale say that they would never eat it if it wasn't for cultural reasons. Otherwise, they find it immoral. The other problem with tourists eating whale is that they often do so directly after stepping off of a whale watching tour boat. I'm not even joking about this. As a matter of fact, whale menus can be found in the harbor right next to where the boat lands, and once people shed their yellow slickers and shake off their sea legs, they make a bee-line for the table and chow down while comparing photographs, completely without irony.
It's a sad truth that this cultural experience was only recently invented. Much like the famous Icelandic sweater, it is a recent introduction and in no way deeply rooted in society. But this is not widely advertised. Certainly not by the one man who is getting pretty rich off of the venture.

For more information about the myths of Icelandic whaling, and what people are doing about it, you can read this great article from the Reykjavík Grapevine here.

Two more Icelandic mythbusting posts coming atcha in the next few days, addressing the pressing issues of Vikings and fairies and elves. Wow, I can hardly wait.


  1. If I understand you correctly, are you saying that any meat-eater has no right to make a distinction between say, catching and eating a bass and killing the last wild tiger in the world? If so, I would have to disagree.

  2. Looking forward to the Fairies and Elves post! (please don't tell me that they don't exist because that would be sad, and also, impossible to explain Bjork, who I am convinced is half fairy and half elf).