The Question of the Whales in Icelandic Waters

Iceland’s foremost Whale specialist, Gísli Víkingsson, explains the scientific truth behind Whale Watching and Whale hunting in Iceland
  • Gísli Víkingsson
Thursday, 13. October 2016

Decadal changes in distribution, abundance and feeding ecology of baleen whales in Icelandic and adjacent waters, was the heading of Gísli Víkingsson’s Ph.D. dissertation from the University of Tromsö, Norway. And who better to present us with educated and unbiased information about the real truth when it comes to whales in Icelandic waters.

Gísli has been working as a whale specialist for the Marine Research Institute in Iceland for over three decades and is head of the Whale Research Unit.  The Marine Research Institute (MRI) was established in 1965. It is a government institute under the auspices of the Ministry of Industry and Innovation. The MRI conducts vast marine researches and provides the ministry with scientific advice, based on its research on marine resources and the environment. In July 2016 the MRI merged with the Institute of Freshwater Fisheries and is now called Marine and Freshwater Research Institute (MFRI).

Like the rest of the world, Icelanders are concerned about whale hunting, but feel the discussion on the international forum has been unfair when it comes to Icelanders and whale hunting.  Especially, when the outcome from the latest whale counting in Icelandic waters shows an astounding increase in the harvested whale stocks. Icelanders are also interested in the growing Whale watching industry and thus highly interested in the status of the whale stock. Not to mention how the increasing number of whales affects our overall fishing stock, fishing species and the Icelandic fishing industry.

A record-breaking increase rate

“We started monitoring the whale stocks in Icelandic waters in 1987,” says Gísli, “which means strategic surveys for estimating numbers and distribution. Since then we have been carrying out these researches every 6-8 years in collaboration with neighboring countries by the North Atlantic. The last one was carried out in 2015, which means we have been scientifically monitoring the whale stock for nearly three decades.  Generally, there are twelve species of cetaceans regularly seen in the Icelandic waters, but we only hunt two of them, the fin whale and the common minke whale.

What we do know from a research we carried out a few years ago though, is how much the twelve species around Iceland eat. They eat approximately six million tons each year. In contrast, the Icelandic fishing fleet only catches one to one and a half million tons a year. The consumption by whales of 4-6 times the total fishery landings is likely to have some, and probably significant effect on the ecosystem.
 

During those three decades, we have seen great changes in the distribution of some of the species. The most remarkable is, of course, the increase in the humpback whale stock, which was estimated to consist of 1800 animals in our original count but is now estimated to consist of 14.000 animals. It is a record-breaking increase rate. The fin whale stock has also increased considerably, albeit not as much as the humpback whale stock. Then again, the abundance of minke whales has diminished quite considerably since the turn of the century throughout the Icelandic backshores, which is primarily due to climate change as the hunting has been at a minimum.

The most remarkable is, of course, the increase in the humpback whale stock, which was estimated to consist of 1800 animals in our original count but is now estimated to consist of 14.000 animals. It is a record-breaking increase rate.

In 2001 the number of minke whale in Icelandic coastal waters was estimated at around 40.000. In 2009 it was estimated at 10.000. The most probable explanation is the changes to various the minke whale’s various food groups. We had, e.g., a collapse in the sand eel stock around 2005, but the sand eel is the minke whale’s primary food along the south and west coast of Iceland. Then the capelin, a cold-water fish, which is the minke whale’s primary food along the north and east coast of Iceland, has retreated towards Greenland during the summer.

For quite some time we couldn’t figure out from the Norwegian’s and Greenlander’s counting where the minke whale had disappeared to. As we had only been hunting approximately 30-50 animals a year, we were at a loss to understand how the stock could have decreased from 40.000 animals to 10.000 animals in a matter of eight years. Then, this summer, we had good news. The minke whales hadn’t disappeared, they had only got lost. The Norwegians had spotted a massive volume of minke whales around Jan Mayen. They had never seen anything like it. We realized the “Icelandic” minke whale stock had been found.”

Chasing the food

When asked about the reason for the increase in the humpback whale stock, Gísli says it is quite a mystery. “Until 1980 the humpback was a rare species but since then they have been increasing at a rate of more than 10 percent every year – which is an increase traditionally assumed to be more than biologically possible for the whales. Maybe it is a similar story as with the minke whale. Maybe they come from elsewhere; maybe it is not simply a biological increase.

Whale watching in Iceland

Iceland might be facing an economic paradox as the whale stock increases; the whale watching industry continues to grow, and whales compete with the Icelandic fishing fleet for other species in Icelandic waters

The thing is though, this has been happening all over the world. There is a significant increase by the USA backshores, and in Australia we are looking at similar numbers. This has astounded scientists all over the world. We don’t have an adequate explanation. How can a species, which has been quite rare all over the world despite decades of protection suddenly increase in such numbers? There is no interaction in any way between the stocks. The Icelandic and the Australian stocks are quite different from each other.

Still, from the turn of the century, we have seen substantial changes in the Icelandic waters, possibly due to ocean warming. Quite a number of marine stocks primarily found by the south coast have now moved quite far to the north of Iceland. Instead, we have got mackerel by the south shore, a species that used to be found quite far to the south. There has been a northward shift in the whole system due to ocean warming. The increase in the whale stock numbers is possibly a part of that lateralisation. They are chasing their food.”

Effect on the ecosystem

With Iceland being a fishing nation such increase in the humpback whale stock might be a cause for concern. When Gísli is asked how the increase will impact the marine stocks around Iceland, he says: “Well, it is a complicated matter as we don’t have a thorough knowledge of which fish species the various whale species feed on. What we do know from research we carried out a few years ago, though, is how much the twelve species around Iceland eat. They eat approximately six million tons each year. In contrast, the Icelandic fishing fleet only catches one to one and a half million tons a year – so it is considerably more than the fishing fleet is conceivably able to catch.

Still, we don’t know how it will impact our fishing industry. The consumption by whales of  4-6 times the total fishery landings is likely to have some, and probably significant effect on the ecosystem. However, this is difficult to quantify at the present stage of knowledge. A better understanding of these interactions in the marine ecosystem is essential to the future management of our marine resources using an ecosystem approach. At present, our scientific advice is largely limited to assessment of the stock situation. Such assessments involve complicated modeling exercises conducted within International Scientific Committees, but in simple terms, their goal is to estimate the present status of stocks, or how large the stocks are in comparison to a historical maximum. Based on such assessments we make suggestions as to how many animals we can hunt without harming the stock (long-term sustainable catch).“

Never overstepped the recommended quota

The whale industry has never overstepped the recommended quota. Our recommendations are quite precautionary and conservative so we are a long way away from depleting the stock. The hunting is by no means pinking the stocks. The only question is, is it economically worth it.

“We have carried out extensive research on the fin whale and the minke whale as they are our primary hunting species. The situation is quite good, so we have recommended a hunting of up to 150 fin whales and 220 minke whales. But, in reality, Iceland has had to adapt to the domestic marked and has only been hunting less than 100 minke whales a year. The whaling industry has never overstepped the recommended quota. Our recommendations are quite precautionary and conservative, so we are a long way away from depleting the stock. The hunting is by no means affecting the stocks. The only question is, is it economically worth it.

When Gísli is asked if he thinks we should stop hunting whales because of the global condemnation and the negative consequences it has for Iceland, he replies: “It is not my call. I am a biologist, and my job is only to assess the stocks.  Still, there is one major fact which is confusing the discourse, especially when it relates to the fin whale. It is on the IUCN global red list because the fin whale situation in the southern hemisphere is poor. Even though it is a different sub-species and has nothing at all to do with the fin whale in the northern hemisphere where the situation is quite good, the poor status of the southern fin whale is used in the propaganda against Iceland.”

The only untouchable species

There is a growing feeling in Iceland that we will have to start thinking about thinning some of the whale stocks out. When asked about his feelings on the matter, Gísli says: “It is perhaps not essential at this stage. The whale watchers are quite happy with “the more, the merrier.” But, if we leave the whales as the only untouchable species in the ecosystem, it will likely have consequences. It will impact other species because we are fully utilizing anything that is usable from the ocean’s ecosystem. Leaving this large and significant part of the ecosystem alone will impact other parts.

Still, we can not yet scientifically claim whether the fish catches would increase if we kept the whale stocks at 60-70 percent from the known maximal number. No one is even thinking about going beyond that number.

The large fishing fleet in Iceland catches 1.5 million tons while whales consume 4 to 6 million tons in Icelandic waters per year; a great concern in all the fishing villages around the coast
 
The large fishing fleet in Iceland catches 1 to 1.5 million tons while whales consume approximately 6 million tons in Icelandic waters per year; a great concern in all the fishing villages around the coast
 
Here, at the Marine Research Institute, we are working towards a better understanding of the impact through ecosystem modeling. Hopefully, in the future, we can predict the possible impact on the fishing industry, or the cause and effect link between whale stocks and fisheries. For the time being, we are not absolutely sure.”

With twelve species of cetaceans, one can’t help but wonder why only two of them are being hunted?

“Some of them, like the blue whale, still haven’t recovered from overexploitation in earlier centuries. The most aggressive hunting took place around 1900. The complete stock in the Icelandic waters is only estimated to count a thousand animals. We don’t know why it has not been able to procreate like the closely related fin whale. No one would ever think of hunting them anywhere in the near future. It is a stock, which would never be able to withstand hunting today.
The number of humpback whales, on the other hand, has increased considerably. It could without a doubt withstand some hunting.  But, as I said, it is not my call. We, who are are working at the Marine and Freshwater Research Institute can only make recommendations based on research. I think it would be harmless to hunt humpback whales and  sei whales. But, we have not been asked to carry out stock assessments for them. That would have to be and administrative decision.”

A ridiculous claim

So, when we are being accused by the international community of destroying significant species, the propaganda has no substantiation. When Gísli is asked his opinion, he agrees.

We would never recommend whale hunting if we thought it would harm the stock. The criticism from academics who previously maintained that the whale hunting was not sustainable has abated. The extensive surveys and associated international scientific assessments have proved the present takes to be well within sustainable levels. However, wrong information on status of whale stocks is still upheld by many NGO‘s.

“The claim is totally ridiculous. We would never recommend whale hunting if we thought it would harm the stock. The criticism from academics who previously maintained that the whale hunting was not sustainable has abated. The extensive surveys and associated international scientific assessments have proved the present takes to be well within sustainable levels. However, wrong information on the status of whale stocks is still upheld by many NGO‘s.

To witness an 18-ton humpback jump out of the water on a Whale watching tour is unforgettable

To witness an 18-ton humpback jump out of the water on a Whale watching tour is unforgettable

 

Another part of the criticism centered upon the hunting methods being inhumane. The Fishery Directorate hired independent foreign specialists to carry out a fin whale hunting method appraisal. They published their report last year, and the comparison was much for the Icelandic hunt when it came to whale hunting practices around the world s.a. in the USA, Japan, Greenland, Norway, etc. According to the report, 84% of the targeted whales died instantly upon shooting and most of the remaining ones within seconds. The comparison was even more favorable when it came to hunting large terrestrial mammals, like reindeer, moose, and fallow deer.”

Unsubstantiated propaganda

“The whale hunting was much more humane than these hunts. The hunting method, using explosive penthrite grenade harpoons is quite effective; the animals die very quickly after they are shot. Of course, there are exceptions in these huntings like in any other huntings. A shot can misfire. And when they do, they are used as an example in the media for propaganda purposes. It is unsubstantiated propaganda fabricated by big companies that prey on people in order to extract money from them. Apparently, it is a much more effective money-making machine than pollution. You can’t see things like pollution and ocean acidification which pose a much greater threat to cetaceans (and the whole ecosystem) than the limited whaling conducted around the world today.”