Iceland to phase out whaling. What does this mean for the International Whaling Commission?


On 4 February 2022, Icelandic Minister for Food, Agriculture and Fisheries, Svandís Svavarsdóttir, of the Left Green Party announced that she would not renew Icelandic quotas for minke whales and fin whales beyond 2024. Along with Norway, Iceland is the only remaining member of the International Whaling Commission (IWC) that has been engaging in commercial whaling. Japan, probably the world’s most outspoken pro-whaling advocate, left the IWC in July 2019.

The reason for Svavarsdóttir to suspend future quotas lies exactly in that fact that Japan had been Iceland’s primary customer for whale meat. Since Japan’s withdrawal from the Whaling Convention and thereby the IWC, it is now entitled to conduct commercial whaling again and is thus no longer dependent on Icelandic whale meat. As a result, despite the quota of 209 fin whales and 217 minke whales, merely one minke whale has been caught in the last two years. This means in turn that whaling has become rather obsolete in the absence of a strong domestic whale market or other significant international trade (here).

Iceland’s controversial role in the IWC

When in November 1948 the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling (ICRW) entered into force, Iceland was one of the first states to ratify it. With the coming into force of the ICRW, also the IWC started to take up its work. Contrary to what it is today, the IWC in the two post-war decades was very much marked by the intention to hunt whales so as to keep the whaling industry alive and to use whale products for the benefit of humankind. Despite the fact that whaling was somewhat regulated through the so-called blue whale unit (BWU), many whale species were severely overhunted while IWC members such as the Soviet Union did not stick to the regulations set by the IWC.

Arne Feuher/Creative Commons

The decline in whales led to the first call for a 10-year ban on commercial whaling at the 1972 UN Conference on the Human Environment in Stockholm, particularly spearheaded by the United States. Iceland, along with Japan and Norway fiercely opposed this idea, because they were those states that considered their whaling operations sustainable and legitimate. In 1982, however, the IWC voted on a temporary zero-catch-quota for all commercial whaling operations. This ‘moratorium’ occurred by a 3/4 majority vote that amended the Schedule to the ICRW, which implements the conventions provisions. In article 10 (e) of the Schedule it was thus decided that “catch limits for the killing for commercial purposes of whales from all stocks for the 1986 coastal and the 1985/86 pelagic seasons and thereafter shall be zero.”

As per the provisions of the Convention, states could object to decisions to amend the Schedule. Initially, Japan, Norway, Peru and the Soviet Union objected to the zero-catch-quota, which mean that they were not bound to it. Peru withdrew its objection in 1983, Japan in 1987 for pelagic and in 1988 for coastal whaling. For Norway and the Soviet Union (Russian Federation), their objections still remain in place, which means they can still hunt whales commercially.  

Iceland, on the other hand, never objected to the moratorium and it was therefore bound to it. Why this objection never came, I cannot state in full confidence. What is clear, however, is that Iceland aimed to and succeeded in circumventing the moratorium by initiating its own scientific whaling programme. After all, a zero-catch-quota on commercial whaling does not prevent governments from putting in place quotas for scientific (special permit) whaling (see article VIII of the ICRW). Moreover, the article further stipulates that:

“Any whales taken under these special permits shall so far as practicable be processed and the proceeds shall be dealt with in accordance with directions issued by the Government by which the permit was granted.”

IRCW, Article VIII.2

This means that even though a moratorium is in place, if a government decides to set a quota for the killing of whales for scientific purposes and the whales are then to be processed and sold, this would, albeit controversial, still be legally valid under the Convention. And that is exactly what happened since 1986 when Iceland conducted scientific whaling and sold the meat to Japan. As a response, many Commission members expressed their disapproval of Iceland’s whaling operations and political pressure was put on it to stop whaling, since it had not objected to the moratorium.

Even though by 1990 the moratorium was supposed to be reviewed and the Revised Management Scheme (RMS) for whaling to be adopted eventually, up to this day, this has never happened. This means, even though whaling was eventually to be resumed, the zero-catch-quota is still in place. This is because many countries have joined the IWC since the late 1970s and thereafter with the explicit goal to end whaling altogether. As a consequence and with the outlook of the moratorium not being lifted, in 1992 Iceland left the IWC when the North Atlantic Marine Mammal Commission (NAMMCO) – comprising Norway, Iceland, Greenland and the Faroe Islands – was established. From then on, , Iceland was no longer bound to the moratorium or any scientific whaling requirements of the IWC since NAMMCO has placed conservation and sustainable use at its core of activities.

In the course of the 1990s, however, more countries joined the IWC that supported the principle of sustainable use – and thereby whaling – as well as those countries that did not endorse whaling, but that were convinced that active management of commercial whaling instead of banning it altogether would keep the Commission alive and functioning. Since the IWC was still the world’s primary body for the management of whales and whaling, Iceland decided to rejoin the Commission and therefore to adhere to the Convention.

But in its instrument of adherence that was submitted to the Commission in 2001, Iceland had inserted a clause that stipulated its reservation towards the moratorium. In other words, in case of rejoining the Commission, Iceland would not be bound to the moratorium. This, obviously, was not acceptable for many Commission members, but in 2002, Iceland succeeded in joining the Commission again, including its reservation towards the moratorium. However, only a very thin majority enabled this: while 19 members supported Iceland, 18 wished it to be an observer without voting rights or to remove its reservation. After Iceland’s successful re-joining of the Commission, Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Chile, Finland, France, Germany, Monaco, Netherlands, Peru, Portugal, San Marino, Spain, Sweden, UK and the USA formally objected to Iceland’s reservation. Italy, Mexico and New Zealand even went further by formally objecting to the reservation and considering the Convention as not in force between their countries and Iceland (here).

What do the recent developments mean for the IWC?

The IWC has long been marked by the deep divisions between countries favouring the preservation of whales and those wishing to hunt them. Whilst anti-whaling states are in the majority, so-called ‘sustainable use’ states are resisting majority pressure. This has led to Japan, the spearhead of the sustainable use countries, to leave the Commission in July 2019. However, also other nations, such as Antigua and Barbuda or St. Lucia, are very outspoken sustainable use countries, even though they themselves do not actively engage in whaling.

Since Japan’s withdrawal from the convention, the resumption of its own commercial whaling activities and, ultimately, the collapse of the Icelandic-Japanese whale meat trade is a result of said divide between preservation and sustainable use, Iceland could tighten its stands by pressuring even more for a resumption of whaling.

This is because the no longer existing trade underlines how, by institutional standards, a dysfunctional international organisation directly impacts an economic and, after all, legal activity.

At the same time, it is also possible that Iceland might scale down its pro-whaling rhetoric to some degree, especially since the economic losses are not as significant as in other examples, for instance in the collapse of the sealing industry for Newfoundland, Canada. With the Icelandic government no longer endorsing the legitimacy of whaling in Iceland by publicly stating that not much harm is done, the diplomatic parameters for Iceland’s Commissioner could change as well. This could translate into the pro-whaling, sustainable use nations within the IWC altogether to look at other fora, such as CITES, to push the sustainable use agenda.

With Japan having left the IWC and Iceland now seemingly phasing out its whaling operations altogether, the set-up within the IWC will inevitably change. How this will happen remains in the realm of speculation for the time being. It seems, however, unlikely that Iceland would again leave the Commission just because its whaling operations are down for the time being (and with the dwindling support of the current Icelandic government). If the political climate changes and other potential trade partners are found, whaling could once again resume in Iceland.

The balance of interests within the IWC is now even more in the favour of anti-whaling states. The next meeting of the Commission will take place in October 2022 in Portorož, Slovenia. Then the world will see how Japan’s withdrawal and Iceland’s dwindling whaling operations will affect the working procedures of the Commission.

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