There is a long history of whaling and eating whale meat in Iceland. Whale hunting began in Iceland as early as the 12th century, and stranded whales have always been a significant windfall.
Iceland is a part of the International Whale Commission and has been since the beginning, apart from a few years. Icelanders quit the commission in 1990 as a protest against the complete whaling ban. The government joined again in 2002.
Icelanders have a completely different relationship to eating whales than horse meat. While it was literally banned for centuries to eat horses, and quite the social stigma to do so even during famines, eating whales has never had the stigma. Even today, when whaling is banned on most of the planet, and many don’t eat it for animal welfare reasons, about 75% of Icelanders approve of whaling.
Whaling in Iceland
Despite Icelanders hunting whales, it was only on a very small scale. Mostly foreigners hunted whales around Iceland. Basque and Dutch people came here as early as the 17th century to hunt whales. Denmark had a trading monopoly in Iceland during that time, but Icelanders still conducted trade with the whaling nations. The French also hunted whales around the island. The reason why it was primarily foreigners is simply that Icelanders could not afford to do so themselves. They lacked access to capital and did not have government support for innovation.
In the late 19th century, whaling began on a large scale. Basques and Norwegians hunted so much that the Icelandic government, in 1915, decided to ban all whaling of species larger than minke whales. This specifically Icelandic “ban” was in force until 1948, when one whaling station in Iceland was allowed to hunt, apart from limited fishing from 1935 to 1939. The 1915 ban had, however, less to do with wanting to protect the whales from extinction and more with Icelanders feeling they were being used. The government imposed the ban to preserve whale stocks for Icelandic interest.
Scientific Whale Hunting
The International Whaling Commission banned scientific whaling in 1968, but Icelanders still hunted whales until the ban in 1986.
After whaling was banned, Icelanders were responsible for a scientific research project until 1989 that included, among other things, limited finback and sei whale hunting. There was no hunting between 1990 and 2002, but between 2006 and 2010, 280 minke whales were caught. On average, 58 whales have been hunted annually for commercial purposes since 2008 (apart from 2019-2021).
One of the reasons the Icelandic government cites for hunting whales is tradition. However, archaeologists say there is no evidence that Icelanders took part in commercial whaling until the 20th century. Despite that, Icelanders most definitely profited from the foreign whaling stations in the country, especially in the earlier centuries, as they conducted illicit trade during the Danish monopoly.
Icelanders mostly ate whales that were stranded as we didn’t have the resources to hunt them. Some say that the saying “detta í lukkupottinn” – “hit the jackpot” comes from whales stranding in people’s lands. For sure, it at least made their life much better.
Whales still strand regularly around Iceland; however, today, they are disposed of instead of eaten.
IWC Ban on Whaling
When the International Whaling Commission banned all whaling in 1986, Icelanders did not give a proviso like Norway. Due to that, Norwegians could keep on whaling but not Icelanders. Icelanders did so anyway, but when the commission commented on it, Icelanders quit in protest in 1990. Iceland joined the commission again in 2002 with a proviso and thus could conduct whaling legally.
What whales do Icelanders hunt?
Under the guise of sustainable hunting, there is only one company that hunts whales in Iceland. They have a quota of 161 finback whales and 217 minke whales. The company owner said the 2022 quota was like the 2018 quota when they hunted 150 whales. They have permission to hunt until 2023. Animal welfare groups and individuals hope the government will ban whaling at that point.
Is there a clash between Whale Watching Companies and Hunters?
Of course, there is. Whale hunters say they hunt outside the area whale watching companies operate in. However, whale watching companies have noted that whalers have been hunting quite close to their areas. The reason is that the minke whales keep close to the protected areas where whale watching companies operate.
But according to the Icelandic government, there is no reason why those two industries cannot work side by side. There shouldn’t be much clash as only one whaling company operates out of Reykjavik and Hvalfjörður.
Do Icelanders eat Whale Meat?
Yes, they do. However, 95% of all whale products from Iceland are exported. All finback whales are exported to Japan, while minke whale is exported to Norway and Japan. Minke whale stakes are by many considered a delicacy and are sometimes eaten as part of sushi or tartar. It can be tricky to cook, however, because if you don’t do it correctly, it will taste like fish oil.
Whale blubber, especially blubber cured with lactic acid, is eaten during the mid-winter festival þorrablót. It can be difficult to get, depending on how much of the whale is exported and hunted.
Where can you taste whale meat in Iceland?
The best place to taste whale meat in Iceland is restaurant 3 Frakkar. Minke and finback whale meat is consistently on the menu, while other restaurants have it more seasonally. At 3 Frakkar, you can also get guillemot, horse meat, and other Icelandic delicacies.
Apart from that, you can usually always find frozen minke whale meat in supermarkets. It might be from Norway, though, as they hunt much more minke whales than Icelanders.
Want to learn more about whales in Iceland?
We recommend you check out the Whales of Iceland exhibition in Grandi and the whale watching tours we offer. You can even do combo tours: City Walk and a Whale Watching Tour, or Whale Watching and Whales of Iceland.