December 8, 2023

The courteous agreement to an interview came with a twist in its tail. “Shall we have lunch? Do you eat whale meat?” asks Kristján Loftsson, 80, the last hunter of fin whales in Europe, and a man unafraid of controversy.

For more than five decades Loftsson has stubbornly swum against the tide, whether that be public opinion, domestic regulation or an almost complete international consensus. “When they compare me to [Captain Ahab in] Moby-Dick, that’s an honour,” Loftsson says of the 19th-century tale of a seafarer’s bloody quest for revenge against a whale that had bit off his leg.

A grey-bearded man in an anorak looks squarely at the camera
Kristján Loftsson: smart and charming, an opponent calls him. Photograph: Sigga Ella/Guardian

Loftsson’s home country of Iceland is one of the only countries in the world that defies the International Whaling Commission’s ban on commercial whaling, along with Japan and Norway. However, in Norway, the other European outlier, they hunt the minke whale, the populations of which are considered stable.

The continued use off the Icelandic coast of grenade-tipped harpoons to kill fin whales – a species that is one of the world’s largest animals and listed as endangered by the WWF – has naturally been a cause célèbre for environmental movements for decades, a symbol to many of humanity’s cruel exploitation of nature.

At the centre of the raucous controversy has been Loftsson, depicted as an almost pantomime villain by some of his opponents. He has run Hvalur, Iceland’s only whaling company, since inheriting the business on the death of his father, Loftur, in 1974.

Memorable moments have included famous clashes on the high seas with Greenpeace’s Rainbow Warrior ships through the 1970s and 80s and the sinking in November 1986 of two of his whaling vessels in Hvalfjörður, a fjord north of the capital, Reykjavík, by activists from the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society.

“Actually, we were not using those two, so they took the wrong vessels,” he recalls. “But we were insured by Lloyd’s of London; they paid for it.”

Last week Loftsson agreed to meet at the wood-panelled Þrír Frakkar restaurant, near Reykjavík’s city centre, with there being every sign that his difficult and contentious business is now becoming an impossible one. His two vessels, Hvalur 8 and Hval-ur 9, landed three whales on 30 September, bringing to a close this year’s hunting season with a final catch of 23 (another whale was killed but sank to the seabed). The Icelandic government has suggested this might be the end of it all, marking what would be a potentially historic transition and one that in August won the backing of the Hollywood star Leonardo DiCaprio, who called for an outright ban in an Instagram post.

A long plate seen from above, with sushi-like morsels of meat and fish laid out on it
Fermented whale blubber is an Icelandic speciality. Photograph: Sigga Ella/Guardian

“Not [looking] promising, no?” says Loftsson of the political pressures, as he uses chopsticks to tuck into a piece of fermented whale blubber laid out on a platter of local specialities. (The Guardian declined the smoked, raw and fermented whale on offer.) But he adds: “I’m not worried. I know the people here and the politics better than many. I think it will be no problem. I am confident that we will be whaling next year.”

Since 2006, Iceland has set quotas for hunting fin whales. The company’s five-year permit to hunt 161 fin whales a season will formally end this December, with the fisheries minister, Svandís Svavarsdóttir, signalling that it may be the last. “Why should Iceland take the risk of keeping up whaling, which has not brought any economic gain, in order to sell a product for which there is hardly any demand?” she wrote last year. “A Stalinist,” Loftsson says of her.

It has been a difficult season. Hunting was initially delayed after a study published by Iceland’s Food and Veterinary Authority in May claimed that last year’s killings had taken too long, with some of the 15-metre-long animals taking two hours to die after being harpooned multiple times. The weapons are supposed to kill the animal almost immediately by sending an explosive wave through the whale’s body.

A woman seen in a tubular viewing platform at the top of a ship’s mast
One of the two activists who occupied the crow’s nests of the whaling ships for 34 hours last month in Reykjavík. Photograph: B Niehaus/Shutterstock

Then, as the season was due to recommence at the start of September, with the company having met new regulatory demands, two young women clambered into the crow’s nests of Hvalur’s two operating whaling ships and refused to come down despite some police manhandling. They disembarked after 34 hours. “Vagabonds,” Loftsson calls them.

Back out at sea, there was another problem on 7 September when a mechanical failure led to a harpooned whale still being alive while hooked. The crew could not get close enough to euthanise the animal but nor could it be released. The wounded whale had to be harpooned again half an hour after the initial strike.

An older man with a crumpled face seen in front of ships
Árni Finnsson, of the Iceland Nature Conservation Association, believes that whaling in Iceland would have finished by now without Loftsson. Photograph: Sigga Ella/Guardian

Iceland does not need this, says Árni Finnsson, chair of the Iceland Nature Conservation Association. He believes that without Loftsson, whom Finnsson describes as smart and capable of great charm, whaling would be finished. A recent poll suggests 42% of Icelanders oppose the trade, while 29% support it.

Valgerður Árnadóttir has been organising protests against Iceland’s whale hunting since 2018. She does not believe new quotas will be issued by the fisheries minister, who is from the green faction of the ruling coalition that also includes the conservative Independence party.

There is also a bill going through parliamentary committees that could ban whale hunting. Arnadottir lists the reasons Iceland should turn the page. “It is just animal abuse,” she says firstly, adding: “They are very important to the ecosystem.

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A middle-aged woman in a port looks at the camera
Valgerður Árnadóttir, a longtime activist, says whaling is not profitable and harms Iceland’s tourism and film industries. Photograph: Sigga Ella/Guardian

“The more whales there are, the more fish,” she says, “because they take the nutrients from the bottom and get it to the surface, where the fish eat it.”

Whale meat is no longer eaten much in Iceland but is instead being “sold to Japan as a delicacy”, she says. It is not profitable as an industry, she claims, and damages the tourism and film industry. “Some of the biggest directors and actors in the world now have pledged not to come to Iceland with their projects,” she says, adding that Loftsson “would not be hunting if he was not a supporter of the Independence party”.

Loftsson, who says he donates to other parties too, including the Left-Green Movement, is today one of Iceland’s richest men, having diversified his business into a major investment company with large shareholdings in banks, fisheries and IT companies.

It is clear that he does not need to hunt whales. That he continues to do so can perhaps be explained by a stubborn refusal to be put out of business by what he terms the “anti-everything” brigade, with which he has long been locked in battle and that he suggests will go for the fisheries sector next, a mainstay of the Icelandic economy.

He suggests whaling is no more cruel than the UK’s deer hunting. While admitting “mishaps” occur, Loftsson claims the vast majority of whales lose consciousness almost immediately.

A heavily set man in a white chef’s hat poses in a restaurant next to a model of a ship and an orca
Stefán Úlfarsson, chef and owner of Reykjavík’s Þrír Frakkar restaurant, which serves Icelandic specialities such as puffin, whale meat and salmon. Photograph: Sigga Ella/Guardian

As for the ecosystem, he says populations are healthy in Iceland’s maritime exclusive economic zone, and globally are no more vulnerable than cod stocks in the north Atlantic. “Do you want to close down all the fish and chip shops in the UK?” he asks. (The International Union for Conservation of Nature red list classifies fin whales as vulnerable.)

Loftsson’s company sells 90% of its produce to Japan but there is a thriving market for it, he says, and a profit was made in 2022, despite the difficulties in finding shipping companies to export the meat. He also claims that the largest whale-watching companies lost money over the past decade.

Loftsson does not expect the whale-hunting ban to be approved by parliament. Indeed, he has “gamechanging” ideas for his trade. Freeze-dried whale tablets could be just the iron supplement the world needs, Loftsson suggests. Whale tablets? “It is the biggest health problem in the world: lack of iron,” he claims. “Do you want to have constipation and diarrhoea?”

With a glint in his eye, he says he is also looking at whether he might sell whale deaths as a carbon credit. The animals’ faeces are rich in nutrients that stimulate the growth of phytoplankton, which then capture carbon dioxide. But Loftsson suggests the carbon dioxide emitted from whales’ blowholes could outweigh it. “Each fin whale gets to 70 years old and the average age of the whales we are culling is about 26 years,”, he says. “I want a credit for that as they won’t be doing that any more.”

He dismisses an assertion that he only continues whaling due to a deathbed promise to his father. “No, no, he was a realist,” he says. “It is just a business. We have the equipment; it is a resource we can utilise.”

As he enters his ninth decade, the last whaler is showing no signs of retiring his harpoons. “There are about 40,000 fin whales [around Iceland],” he claims, adding: “The quota is maybe 160 or something like that. So, we can carry on for ever.”

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