Conservationists are outraged after an Icelandic fishing company chose to ignore international law and butcher what appears to be a blue whale.
Hvalur HF, the fishing company accused of killing the whale, is owned by Icelandic multi-millionaire Kristján Loftsson. According to international anti-whaling activist group Sea Shepherd, the whale was killed around July 7, with photos depicting the dead animal being butchered for its blubber that was later sold and shipped off to Japan.
Since June of this year, the fishing company has allegedly killed 22 endangered whales – most of them being blue whales’ smaller cousins, fin whales.
Was it a blue whale?
The company contested the accusations, arguing the mammal was probably a hybrid species or “a rare fin-blue,” but not a blue whale. “We have never caught a blue whale in our waters since they were protected,” its owner argues. “We see them in the ocean. When you approach a blue whale, it’s so distinct that you leave it alone.”
Captain Paul Watson, the founder of Sea Shepherd, disagrees with Loftsson. “This man must be stopped from ruthlessly violating international conservation law and bringing such disrepute to the nation of Iceland,” said a statement from Weston. “There can be no legal justification for this crime.”
Experts seem to also disagree with Loftsson’s claims that the whale wasn’t a blue whale, pointing to its fins as physical traits of the species.
“While I can’t entirely rule out the possibility that this is a hybrid, I don’t see any characteristics that would suggest that,” said Dr. Phillip Clapham, NOAA Alaska Fisheries Science Centre. “From the photos, it has all the characteristics of a blue whale; given that – notably the coloration pattern – there is almost no possibility that an experienced observer would have misidentified it as anything else at sea.”
Adam A. Pack, a professor of biology at the University of Hawaii at Hilo, seemed to echo that belief. “Look at the way the dorsal fin is hooked, the pointed pectoral fins, and the size of the animal,” Pack said.
Whaling wasn’t left behind in the 20th century
The blue whale is the largest creature on Earth, growing to a massive size of 98 feet and nearly 300,000 pounds. The ocean mammals are listed as endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and have been protected by law since 1966.
The last blue whale was killed off the coast of Spain in 1978, just a year after the ‘Save The Whales’ campaign was launched to call attention to the rampant butchering of whales that was leading to a sharp decline in their populations.
“People assume whaling is an artifact of the past — but it’s not,” Harry Scheiber, a marine law expert and former director of the University of California at Berkeley’s Law of the Sea Institute, said.
While commercial whaling was widespread in the 1800s and even the much of the 20th century, it has been banned since 1986, after the International Whaling Commission (IWC) issued a global moratorium. Despite this, Iceland, Japan, and Norway have continued to hunt whales.
In 2002, Iceland decided to stop honoring the treaty. Legally, they can do this also because the whaling commission’s moratorium on whaling is more a formal agreement of good faith, rather than binding law.
“It’s not the same as national legislation with meaningful penalties,” added Catherine Pruett, executive director of Sea Shepard Legal.
However, Iceland could face more than public backlash. It’s possible that Icelandic fishing vessels could be denied U.S. port access or import restrictions on fish under the Magnuson‐Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Reauthorization Act of 2006. The act states that foreign nations should be punished for plundering endangered species and engaging in illegal fishing.
In the meantime, Icelandic authorities plan to conduct genetic testing on what is left of the animal to get a definite answer on its species. However, it could months before the results are in. Meanwhile, Hvalur HF is free to continue hunting down endangered animals, without repercussions.
Update as of July 30th: DNA tests have confirmed that the whale was a rare hybrid – the offspring of a blue and fin whale (Hvalur HF claimed it was a hybrid and not a blue whale when the story was first reported). Because one of its parents is a protected species however, selling its meat is illegal.
Researchers and conservationists argue that the killing is an example of the inability for whaling companies to correctly identify the whales they go after.
“It confirms what scientists have been saying for years – whaling can’t be regulated,” said Astrid Fuchs of the group, Whale and Dolphin Conservation. “It is always a bit out of control, they are going out there but they don’t know what they are shooting.”