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Updated: Jan 20

by Micah Garen on 13 October 2023

  • As Iceland’s latest whaling season comes to a close, a heated debate continues over the ethics and sustainability of the country’s policy on these marine mammals.

  • Filmmaker and activist Micah Garen — who co-directed the documentary “The Last Whaling Station” — shares his thoughts on what may be the nation’s last whaling season.

  • “The paradox of whaling is the inherent contradiction between a utilitarian and Kantian world view. If you believe your choices matter, then ending whaling now is the only ethical, moral and philosophical choice we can make,” he argues.

  • This post is a commentary. The views expressed are those of the author, not necessarily of Mongabay.

As I write this, two whaling ships have just hung up their harpoons for the season, and we are all left to wonder, what is next? Was whale number 25 the last fin whale to be killed in Iceland? Or just another bloody chapter in an endless saga pitting one man’s trophy hunting obsession against the greater good of society and the natural world?

Before the harpoon guns were removed from the decks of the whaling ships Hvalur 8 & 9 on the bleak morning of September 30, the ships were full steam ahead – or rather whale oil ahead, as that is what the engines used to run on – hunting endangered fin whales somewhere off the coast of Iceland. And a lot of people were in dismay wondering how this could happen in one of the wealthiest countries in the Europe, with the highest status of women, renowned for its green energy, breathtaking landscapes and stunning wildlife. A country where whale meat is rarely, if ever, eaten.

Fin whales are beautiful migratory sentient sea mammals who have roamed the oceans for millions of years. They are the second largest animal on the planet, and one of the largest to have ever lived. They were nearly driven to extinction by commercial whaling over the past two centuries, but since the 1986 fin whales have been protected under an international moratorium on whaling.

Hvalur 9 returning to port with whales in tow. Image courtesy of Arne Feuerhahn / Hard to Port.

The scientific evidence is overwhelming: whales are vital for ocean health, fertilizing the ocean with their feces, and they are critical in the battle against climate change, as they sequester tons of carbon in their lifetimes, both on their bodies and in helping phytoplankton grow.

And, equally important – to lay an old myth to rest – whales do not deplete fish stocks. In fact, research has proven the more whales there are, the more fish there are. And yet, fin whales migrating through Icelandic waters this fall were hit with exploding harpoons, chopped up, and sent to Japanese vending machines.

I say somewhere off the coast of Iceland because the Icelandic Coast Guard, putting the whale hunter Kristján Loftsson’s interest over public safety, has allowed the boats to disable their AIS tracking system, a requirement for all vessels over thirty tons under international maritime law. The whaling boats moved about like ghosts, war machines from a different era, driving us all one small step closer to our collective demise.

The decision to allow this hunt to go on is both an ethical and moral question, as well as a philosophical one.

The ethical question is quite simple, and was settled by the Icelandic Food and Veterinary Authority (MAST) ethical review board in June when they announced that there is no humane way to hunt fin whales, and therefore it is a violation of the Icelandic Act on Animal Welfare.

Harpoon on Icelandic whaling ship. Image by Arne Feuerhahn / Hard to Port.

In May, presaging the volcanic earthquakes that rattled Reykjavik this summer, MAST released a report with graphic videos from the 2022 hunting season that shook the public consciousness.

Many Icelanders hadn’t realized how awful the hunts really were. Almost half the whales killed suffered for an extended period of time, a quarter were hit with more than one exploding harpoon, seventy percent were female and half a dozen were pregnant. MAST concluding that the methods of hunting were “unacceptable.”

But MAST couldn’t reach a conclusion as to whether these obviously unacceptable violations actually violated the Icelandic Act on Animal Welfare, and referred that question to the ethical review board.

Svandís Svavarsdóttir, the Minister for Food, Agriculture and Fisheries, who had long declared whaling a thing of the past, said regrettably her hands were legally bound, and she could nothing to stop the hunt this summer.

Five days before the hunt was to being in June, the ethical review board reached their simple conclusion: it is not possible to hunt fin whales humanely.

Armed with the ethical review board’s findings, Svandís abruptly reversed course, immediately suspending the whaling season one day before it was set to begin.

Facing off with a group of angry whalers at a meeting to defend her decision two days later in Akranes, Svandís proclaimed “congress has entrusted me with the duty to speak on behalf of animals, and I am fulfilling it.”

Fin whales killed in 2022 off the coast of Iceland. Still from video filmed by MAST on whaling boats.

But the guns of August grew louder. Members of the Independence and Progressive parties, two thirds of a fragile three-party coalition government, threatened to collapse the government over the issue. When that threat, coupled with their low polling numbers, seemed perhaps hollow, they threatened Svandís directly with a vote of no confidence when Parliament reconvened in September, saying the Minister had violated both legal procedure and laws of proportionality in suspending the whale hunt.

In a shot across her bow, a complaint was filed with the Parliamentary Ombudsman.

Svandís appeared to buckle under the pressure, and allowed Loftsson to continue his trophy hunting obsession on September 1, again just one day before the hunt was set to begin. She has since denied political pressure was involved, taking full responsibility for a decision that was not only illogical but unethical.

The Left Greens, Svandís’ party, who have left the ‘green’ behind a long time ago – famously throwing Bjork and Greta under their canola oil powered bus – threw their support behind Svandís in a celebration of nature following her decision. Happy party faces parading in the fjords on the east coast of Iceland were splashed across social media, echoing in a now empty digital echo-chamber that was once filled with their nature loving supporters.

Svandís’ decision was neatly backed by a report from a technocratic working group she had convened earlier in the summer just for this purpose – to provide cover for whatever decision she had to make about whaling in the fall.

The working group recommended this and that, minor changes mostly – don’t hunt at night, shoot better, take a class on whale anatomy and pain. Loftsson, happily shrugged off the suggestions as common sense, and polished his harpoons.

But the noose was tightening.

What didn’t seem to get much attention were a few simple lines at the end working group’s report, where they noted that their report did not address the fundamental question that had led to the pause on whaling in June – there is no humane way to hunt fin whales.

Protest against whaling in Iceland, 2023. Image courtesy of Petra Leifsdottir.

Which brings us to the perhaps more difficult and paradoxical philosophical question. Svandís’ decision is a classic example of sacrificing the few for the many, what is known as the Trolly Problem. You have a trolly speeding down a track towards a group of people, and you can steer it off the track to hit one person standing on another track. Do you sacrifice one to save the many?

Let Loftsson whale this one final season, and then don’t renew his license – so the argument went among many on the left who had watched in despair as the whaling debate dragged on for decades. Whaling will be over in 2024, so the headlines proclaimed as early as 2022 when Svandís initially decided to put MAST observers on the whaling boats. The 150 or so whales sacrificed this year is a small price to pay for ending whaling. Right?

Would that it were so easy, we could all trade our moral convictions for ethical relativism and logical fallacy, and bask in a utilitarian paradise focused on the end game, not the bloody means to get there.

The stakes are high. Loftsson and his conservative protectorate showed just how determined they are this summer never to let whaling go. And there is a real possibility that all that will be achieved by Svandís’ decision this fall is more dead whales.

Loftsson could improve his hunting methods just enough to argue that he should get a new five year license. MAST might delay the release of their report on the hunting, as happened last year, until after the decision on his license renewal in December. The coalition government could collapse and Svandís could be replaced. And, most probably, Svandís might yet again cave to political pressure.


Unless Loftsson continues to demonstrate that there is no humane way to hunt fin whales, and armed with this new set of data points, Svandís finally sunsets the whaling issue by simply not issuing a new license. And Parliament strikes the fatal blow by approving legislation, introduced last week by the Pirate Party, to ban whaling.

The harpoon or catcher ship Hvalur 8 arrives at the whaling station in Hvalfjörður, West Iceland. Two fin whales are tied to the starboard side of the ship. Image by Arne Feuerhahn / Hard to Port.

Certainly, Loftsson is well on his way to his own undoing. His first kill on September 8 was a female, shot with two harpoons. Of 25 whales killed in September, many were shot outside the target area and with multiple harpoons, proving what we knew all along, that you can’t hunt fin whales humanely.

It seems we are well on our way to our utilitarian utopian ending, and all that will be lost is a few dozen fin whales? Small price to pay. Right? Unless you are one of those whales of course.

As the gruesome whale hunt ground on, stalled only by bad weather and MAST’s temporary decision to stop Hvalur 8 because its first whale kill was a 29 minute horror show, an even greater tragedy unfolded on September 22.

Whale number 17 was brought in. It was pregnant, and as the flensing knives split open the mother’s belly, a well developed fetus slid out onto the concrete floor of the processing center. It was quickly speared with a half dozen hooks and dragged off to the shed where they take fetuses out of sight of the cameras.

Meanwhile, on the same day, two and a half hours north of Reykjavik, a baby orca was saved from stranding. The country celebrated the Herculean effort to free the orca, with veterinarians on hand to float it gently back to sea.

If you are a baby orca, you live, if you are a baby fin whale, you die.

The opposite of utilitarianism is Kantianism, the idea that our individual choices matter, not as a means to an end, but in and of themselves. That the act of being morally good is the act of each choice we make.

Anahita Babaei in the crow’s nest of Hvalur 9 Sept. 4, 2023. Photo: Boris Niehaus / Hard To Port

Making the right decision takes courage, the courage of not knowing what the consequences of that decision might be. Perhaps, by taking the hard decision to save whales, the government collapses, perhaps you get voted out of office, perhaps. But at least you have stood your moral ground.

In the dark early morning hours of September 4, Anahita Babaei, the co-director of our documentary film about whaling, The Last Whaling Station, and Elissa Bijou, had the courage to scale the 15 meter masts on Hvalur 8 and 9 in Reykjavik harbor, without functioning safety harnesses, to stop those war machines from leaving to kill whales. Neither knew what the consequences of their actions would be.

But they were successful for two full days, saving perhaps four whales.

They held solidly to the strength of their moral convictions – that killing any whale is wrong. Armed with that knowledge, they acted, believing in humanity, and life, and whales. They were acting to prevent the kind of tragedy that took place on September 22.

The police came quickly and tried to remove Anahita from the crow’s nest. Hoisted in a fire truck, normally reserved for saving lives, they forcibly took all her belongings – her phone first and then her backpack with water, food, extra clothes and medicine.

But they could not get her.

She remained in the mast for 34 hours without water, and overnight in the cold, with one singular goal – to protect whales.

The police played a dangerous game of negotiation with her life, refusing to provide water if she did not come down, a tactic that is not only unethical, but against international human rights laws.

As the clock ticked past the 24 hour mark, the police turned away an ambulance three times that had been called to do a health check and bring her water. You can live three minutes without oxygen, three days without water and three weeks without food.

Anahita was heading into day two without water.

Whales towed in to Hvalfjörður in western Iceland near Reykjavík. Image by Dagur Brynjólfsson via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 2.0).

In their utilitarian view, perhaps, sacrifice the one – Anahita – for the greater good? In this case the business of whaling that was being obstructed.

But whaling itself benefits a mere handful of people, certainly not the greater good. Kristján Loftsson loses millions a year, and the salaries of the temporary workers are subsidized by his unsustainable obsession.

Meanwhile, the reputation of Iceland was on the line. More than eighty international film professionals pledged not to work in Iceland if there is whaling, threatening a $150 million dollar a year industry. Tourism is expected to take at least a $20 million dollar hit from angry tourists pledging not to come. And the US State Department, who has imposed diplomatic sanctions on Iceland since 2014 because of the whaling, fired a shot across the bow saying “we urge Iceland to end its commercial whaling activities”.

So what of the greater good?

Those who operate under the utilitarian paradigm seem to become Kantian when it comes to protecting Kristján Loftsson, his interests always seem to come first. Not Kantian in fact, but ethical egoists, or more to the point, pure egoism, Loftsson’s ego, protected by political power backed by his fortune.

The topic of whaling, like the whales themselves, has for a brief moment taken center stage in the Icelandic psyche, posing challenging ethical, moral and philosophical dilemmas.

The pressing question of what would happen to the two young women on the masts was live streamed to a society hoping for simple answers. But the real question was not the game of survival – could they stay up another 24 hours – or the ethical question of whether Anahita should be given water or not, it is a philosophical question: what kind of society do we want to live in? Who are we as people? What do we value, and how do we act on our value system?

Do we want to live in a society where the end justifies the means, where self interest and ego rule the day? Where we feel good sacrificing whales this season in the hopes of saving whales in the long run? Where sacrificing one human is the price of protecting business interests?

Or do we want to value ourselves and life around us and recognize that every life matters, every whale matters, every decision we make matters.

Fin whales fetus cut from its mother's womb in September 2023 at the Hvalur processing plant in Hvalfjörður. Image by Arne Feuerhahn / Hard to Port.

The life of the baby fin whale ripped from its womb matters.

If it is the later, the ethical and moral choices are indeed simple. And the decision to save every whale is an easy one. As the ethical review board said, there is no humane way to hunt fin whales.

This moment of decision is one Iceland and the world will be digesting for a long time. Like sour whale, the dish made from fin whale in fermented milk, no one really wants to eat it, but there it is on our plates, and we must decide what to do for the whales, for ourselves and our future.

The paradox of whaling is the inherent contradiction between a utilitarian and Kantian world view. If you believe your choices matter, then ending whaling now is the only ethical, moral and philosophical choice we can make. The actions of everyone in Iceland who fought for the whales this season saved perhaps 125 animals. And we need to not only speak for, but act on behalf of animals. Each and every animal.

Micah Garen is a documentary filmmaker and co-director with Anahita Babaei of the film “The Last Whaling Station.” He and Babaei also helped organize the campaign to end whaling in Iceland this year.

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