Iceland, one of the last whaling countries besides Norway and Japan, is on the verge of ending its whaling days. It might already be over if not for one man, but Kristjan Loftsson continues to operate his two whale boats out of Hvalfjordur, Iceland. Loftsson’s boats landed 154 whales in 2022, but a temporary whaling ban shortened the 2023 season. “We really only worked in September last year,” said 80-year-old Loftsson. “So, we only got 24.”

Loftsson’s license expired in December 2023, and it has not been renewed so far. “Even if they renewed it now, it’s too late,” he shared. You don’t get these boats ready in a month. Some of our equipment must be shipped from other countries.”

Svandis Svavarsdóttir, Iceland’s former fisheries minister, committed to end whaling in Iceland in 2024. Svavarsdóttir pointed to the limited financial benefit of whaling and imposed a ban in 2023, citing a report from observers that several whales had taken more than one shot to kill. “The conditions of the Act on Animal Welfare are inescapable in my mind,” Svavarsdottir was quoted, “If the government and license holders cannot guarantee welfare requirements, this activity has no future.” But the Althingi, Iceland’s governing body, declared Svavarsdottir’s action illegal, and she has since been replaced. 

Hvalur HF has sued the government for damages, and while he does not expect his boats to take any whales this year, it’s not game over for Loftsson, who hopes to fish again in 2025. Loftsson inherited the company from his father, Loftur Bjarnason, in 1974. “He started the company in 1948,” said Loftsson. “We hunted blue whales for the first ten years until that was stopped in 1959.” Loftsson, who worked on the boats for five summers during high school, notes that the company also took sei whales and sperm whales but, in recent years, has only hunted fin whales.

Because the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) “requires that parties not issue any import or export permits for commercial trade in any whale stocks for which the IWC has set zero catch limits,” Loftsson can only sell to Japan and supply a limited domestic market. But he insists that it is a viable and perhaps necessary industry.

Loftsson calls his opponents “asphalt environmentalists,” wondering if they understand anything about nature and sure they know nothing about whaling. “In our region, we have 40,000 fin whales. We take 150 a year,” he said. “When we kill a whale, we hook onto it by the tail and bring it to the shore. We must get the whale back to Hvalfjordur within 24 hours, so that limits the area where we can operate.” 

While fin whales are listed as vulnerable by the IUCN (International Union for the Conservation of Nature) and endangered by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration—due to low numbers in the southern hemisphere—by all estimates, the North Atlantic stock has rebounded to almost pre-exploitation levels. Loftsson notes that managing the stock is part of managing all fisheries and maintaining ecological balance.

In Grettir’s Saga, a staple of Icelandic literature, several families fight a deadly battle over a drift whale washed ashore, a gift of meat and blubber. But dead whales are less welcome in the 21st Century. “When they can’t go swimming because of a whale rotting on the beach, maybe they will understand,” said Loftsson. Until then, he will continue to stand against those in Iceland who are ready to end one of the island nation’s oldest industries.

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Paul Molyneaux is the Boats & Gear editor for National Fisherman.

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