As a visitor in Iceland or an enthusiast about birds, you may wonder about the state of the puffin – how it’s faring against climate change, volatile weather conditions and human impact. This article covers some of the most important factors relating to puffin survival, including puffin hunting and changes in natural conditions. Let’s start by looking at perhaps the hottest topic: puffin hunting.

Why would you want to hunt such a cute and wonderful bird? Some of you might ask. Why not? Is what some of you might answer. It seems to be delicious and quite unique in its taste. Yes, puffins are being hunted in Iceland, and yes it is one of only two places in the world (next to the Faroer Islands), where the hunt is still legal.

puffin survival

USFWS, Atlantic puffins landing

Right now there is a lot of discussion about this practice and I will tell you what the fuss is all about. Remember that hunting puffins is basically as old as the the Icelanders themselves. They have pretty much done it since their Viking ancestors arrived on the island, because they probably knew it from other places in their territories. Hell, there is a whole festival in the Westman Islands (since 1874), where the biggest puffin colony resides, that is inseperable of the enjoyment of smoked puffins, which to this day is considered a delicacy.

And it does make sense. The Atlantic puffin (Fratercula arctica) is still the most common bird in Iceland with millions of pairs nesting on many of the steep cliffs. Take abundance and tradition and you have two very strong arguments to keep up this practice that is past on from generation to generation without much alteration or change. The technique has basically been the same all along. No guns are used. It is quite a simple technique: you attach a triangular net on an up to 4m long pole and voila- you have your háfur (Iceland) or fleyg (Faroer); the pole that is used to catch the puffins since centuries. Sounds simple, but actually requires a lot of skill to catch those puffins in their flight.

Want some proof? Even Gordon Ramsay tried it in a very controversial Youtube Video from 2008. After hours, he finally managed to catch a puffin. The first one of the season! Traditionally that one is released for good luck. With some more practice, he went on to catch two more and after the neck is broken and the chest meat is taken out, followed his Icelandic teacher in eating the raw heart of the puffin. Leaving the showman aspect of this particular hunt, we have to keep in mind that Iceland is a very scarse country, where survival has never been guaranteed. Under such harsh conditions, easily accessible animal protein was crucial for the survival of the settlers.

A skilled hunter could catch a few hundred puffins in a single day, providing enough food for himself and the community. In that fashion even in the 1970s approximately 150,000-200,000 puffins were killed in Iceland alone. Icelandic hunters have long kept track of their catches (since 140 years!). That enables scientists even today to look at the numbers of puffins and how puffin survival is affected by different factors.

Puffin survival

A puffin catcher in Suðurey, Faroe Islands (CC BY-SA 3.0)

That‘s also how we know one thing: Things have changed. The hunters were the first to recognise this, as it got harder to hunt plenty of puffins – simply because there are not so many around anymore. The hunting had to change with the dropping numbers. Over the time the hunting season has been shortened and shortened. While it was 46 days long just a couple of years ago, they cut it down to just a week in 2021. Now the hunting season in South-Iceland is only three days long. In fact, it‘s such a short season that many of the more passionate hunters that do it travel to the North, to Grímsey, where the hunting season is longer (~6 weeks). Still, hunting has decreased by 90% in comparison to the 1970s (still reaching about 15,000-20,000 birds each year). What is happening?

Puffin populations are struggling. Especially in the Westman Islands, where researcher Erpur Hansen speaks of a breeding failure since 2003. Almost no subadults are recruited into the breeding populations with the consequence of an alarming 70% decrease over the last 30 years. And it doesn‘t look much better for the rest of Europe. In total the population is calculated to be declining at a rate of 50-79% over three generations (65 years) according to new data from the IUCN. That has led the puffin to be listed as vulnerable, with some populations on the European level even as endangered (IUCN 2018). Because Iceland and Norway together hold about 80% of the total population in Europe, their status here is of the utmost importance for puffin survival overall.

puffin survival

A group of puffins protecting their burrows

But what are the factors for such a drastic decline? It surely isn‘t all to blame on a few hunters right? Indeed the problem is way more complex and has to do with all of us, not just some hunters. One of the most important factor is the warming of the climate due to human activity. The puffins’ main prey species in (the South) of Iceland is the sand eel. It thrives at a sea surface temperature of around 7,1°C, with rates of puffin survival and reproduction dropping the more temperatures vary. Just like the young herring and the capelin (other staple foods for the puffin), they are cold water fish. And they are being fed to the young puffins!

Because of the warming sea water, prey populations are dying. Or they are pushed further North, out of reach for the puffins in their breeding colonies. That is one reason why puffin survival around Grímsey is still comparably better than in the Westman Islands, where sand eels have vanished. In the absence of enough prey, the parent puffins must fly further and further away to find enough food to feed their young, very energy taxing and often not sufficient, which results in the starvation of the young.

puffin survival

A beak full of sandeel for the pufflings

As if that wasn’t already a big enough problem, overfishing is another important factor further decimating prey stocks for the puffins. Sand eel is not being eaten directly by humans, but it is further processed into fish meal and fertilizer. It’s the same for capelin. I don’t have to tell you much about herring.

So, what role does hunting play in the overall decline of the puffins? According to lead scientist Hansen, breeding puffins tend not to fly into the nets of the hunters, because they fly directly in and out of their burrows while it is the young adolescents that fly along the cliffs more aimlessly. They are the ones that are being caught by the hunters. He subsequently called for a hunting ban. Hunting seems to account for about 10% of the recent decline, because it has robbed the populations of an upcoming breeding generation while the reproduction performance of an aging population decreases more and more. Therefore, any hunting of puffins is considered ecologically unsustainable.

puffin survival

Bill Ward, Puffin meat at a restaurant in Reykjavík (CC BY 2.0)

Why this might be interesting for you? Let’s say you’d walk through Reykjavik and come across a restaurant that still serves puffin meat. Puffin „harvesting“ has for the longest time been a local activity, where the inhabitants hunt in their local, unforgiving environment for survival. But things have changed and curious tourists are creating a demand for puffin meat that wouldn‘t exist without them. I believe through the given information you are enabled to make a reasonable decision with puffin survival in mind. Although curiosity is strong in us, you just have to ask yourself, if you think that eating such a unique and wonderful bird that is in severe decline is a bright idea? If you are still not convinced, I’d love to show you the beauty of these birds on one of our Puffin Express or Puffin Express by RIB Speedboat tours here at Special Tours.

As always, thanks for reading and hopefully see you soon.

Blog by Daniel Blankenheim, Special Tours guide

 

PS: As of the 29.05.2023, there is news about hundreds of dead puffins (among other sea birds) being stranded dead in the Westman Islands. We don’t know exactly what is happening right now and are waiting for data to be released. There is reason to believe these deaths are the result of bird flu, which has wreaked havoc in several countries among different bird species in recent years. It certainly is alarming news for the puffin population in Iceland that is already struggling.

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Humpback whales are one of the most iconic marine species, known for their beautiful songs and their graceful movements. Every year, humpback whales embark on a long migration from their feeding grounds in the North Atlantic to their breeding grounds in the Caribbean Sea. This journey covers thousands of miles and involves navigating through treacherous waters, avoiding predators, and dealing with changing weather conditions. In this blog post, we’ll take a closer look at humpback whale migration in the North Atlantic, including the waters around Iceland.

Whale migration in the North-Atlantic Ocean

Humpback Whale Migration in the North Atlantic

The North Atlantic is home to some of the largest populations of humpback whales in the world. These whales spend the summer months feeding in the cold waters of the North Atlantic, building up their fat reserves for the long journey ahead. As the temperatures start to drop and the days get shorter, the humpback whales begin to feel the pull of their breeding grounds in the Caribbean Sea. They start to make their way south, covering thousands of miles in the process.

The journey takes the humpback whales through some of the most challenging waters in the world, including the Gulf of Maine, the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, and the waters around Iceland. These areas are known for their strong currents, treacherous weather conditions, and diverse marine life.

Humpback Whales Around Iceland

Iceland is a popular destination for humpback whale watching, as the waters around the island are home to large populations of these majestic creatures. The humpback whales that travel through the waters around Iceland are part of a larger population that feeds in the cold waters of the North Atlantic during the summer months.

The humpback whales that pass by Iceland are known for their unique behavior, including breaching, tail slapping, and bubble net feeding. Bubble net feeding is a fascinating behavior that involves a group of whales working together to create a ring of bubbles around a school of fish. The whales then swim up through the bubble net, catching the fish in their mouths.

Whale migration in the North-Atlantic Ocean

A humpback breaches in front of a happy crowd on a RIB boat. Click photo for more!

The Importance of Protecting Humpback Whales

Humpback whales are one of the most studied and well-documented marine species in the world. Despite this, they are still under threat from a variety of human activities, including climate change, pollution, and commercial whaling.

Protecting humpback whales and their habitats is crucial for their survival and for the health of the oceans as a whole. Efforts are underway to protect humpback whales and their habitats, including the creation of marine protected areas and the enforcement of regulations on commercial whaling.

Conclusion

Humpback whale migration in the North Atlantic is a truly remarkable event that has captured the imagination of people around the world. The waters around Iceland are an important part of this migration, as they provide a critical feeding ground for humpback whales during the summer months. Protecting humpback whales and their habitats is crucial for their survival and for the health of the oceans as a whole.

More on whale migration here.

Get inspired, feel the connection!

In my opinion the will to protect anything – may it be a building, a landmark, an ecosystem or as in our case cetacean species, starts with inspiration and connection. We are much more likely to care about something that we feel connected or even emotionally attached to. One of the many ways to do so is by watching documentaries and learning about how awesome these whales and dolphins really are. The wonder of a „WOW!“ can really change lives. There is huge growing interest and a market for nature documentaries that reflect how much more we care and are interested in these beautiful places and species. This article lists several things that you can do to contribute to whale conservation.

Whale and man - Whale conservation

Join a whale watching tour

For the same reason, you might consider joining a whale watching tour. Depending on how it is done, it can be a sustainable way of environmental education and seeing cetaceans in a non-harmful way. An encounter with a cetacean in its natural habitat is one of the most awe-inspiring sights in nature. If a tour is done well, follows best practices and has an educational element it has the potential to foster an appreciation for wildlife in its natural environment and contribute to whale conservation. Moreover it raises awareness of whale and dolphin conservation needs.  You might be so inspired that you participate in environmental and conservation actions. That would be awesome!

It also benefits the local economy. The latest report of the International Fund for Animal Welfare from 2008 showed that 13 million people participated in whale watching in 119 countries and territories, generating a total expenditure of $2.1 billion. Furthermore, an estimated 3,300 operators offered whale watching trips around the world. The operators employed an estimated 13,200 people. With the exception of the COVID Pandemic years, the industry and tourist sectors have continued to grow.

Iceland has become the biggest whale watching destination in Europe. Whale watching started quite recently in 1991. 24 whale species have been seen around Iceland. With an 18.3% market share of the tourism industry, whale-watching is steadily becoming popular in Iceland. 20% of all visitors to Iceland go whale watching, that means about 364,000 people in 2019.

Whale watching boat and whale - Whale conservation

 

Start with the person in the mirror! Lifestyle changes

I‘m sorry to say this, but it could be considered quite hypocritical to go on the streets and demand more strict regulations for the protection of cetacean species (good on you for doing so though!) and at the same time continue to be part of their demise in a lot of different indirect ways. If your words and actions (or way of living) go hand in hand, you will be a believable role model for change and protection. Let’s look at a few of the things that you you can “easily“ implement in your daily life.

Plastic pollution

Plastic is a major hazard for many seabirds and all the species that live in the sea. Mass production only started in 1950s, but has reached a production of 8.3 billion metric tons. 6.3 billion metric tons have become plastic waste. If present trends continue, by 2050, there will be 12 billion metric tons of plastic in landfills. That amount is 35,000 times as heavy as the Empire State Building. Plastic seems to smell like food for a lot of species at sea, or- to be more precise, like algae that is breaking down naturally. This algae is what krill, a crustacean species that acts as the main prey for many species, is mainly feeding on. So animals have learned to associate the smell of large quantities of algae breaking down with the abundance of krill. Plastic debris provide the perfect platform for algae to thrive. But unfortunately instead of krill the seabirds only find the debris that they mistake for food. That is why they are eating so much of it with devastating effects on their health. With a full tummy, but without any nutrition, they are slowly starving without noticing. Not only that, but plastic also has toxic effects and entangles many animals. There are a couple of things that you can do in your everyday life to reduce the amount of plastics in the water. Every single bag makes a difference!

  1. Reduce your use of single-use plastics including water bottles. It´s time to buy a reusable one (also for your coffee) and have them with you as much as you can.
  2. Recycle properly: Just 9% of plastic is recycled worldwide today. But proper recycling is very important as it helps to keep plastics out of the ocean. Moreover it also reduces the amount of “new” plastic in circulation.
  3. Be a conscientious consumer when you‘re shopping. Choose natural fibres for your clothing, because microplastics in your synthetics get washed out and will end up in the waterways. Clothes made of cotton, wool and other natural fibers are preferable. Or/ and buy used items whenever possible. When you go shopping, you can also be packaging smart. What I mean by that is: you could rather buy the product with less packaging than another product of the same quality and similar price with a lot of unnecessary plastic packaging. The amount of plastic packaging could become a new criteria for the things you buy.
  4. Spread the Word: Stay informed on the plastic issue and help make others aware of the problem. Tell your friends and family about how they can be part of the solution and avoid unnecessary plastic.

Bird on a polluted beach - Whale conservation

 

Fish eating habits

Please be aware of your fish consumption. Eating fish means supporting the fishing industry. And you really don‘t want to do that if you care about whales and dolphins (and fish). Because entanglement in fishing gear is now the leading threat for whales and dolphins around the globe. It is estimated to cause at least 300,000 deaths per year. This by-catch has led to the almost certain demise of the world’s smallest porpoise, the vaquita in the Gulf of California. But even much larger species, like the false killer whale are caught and killed in nets all around the globe all year long. And if they don‘t die directly in the nets, some swim for months with gear wrapped around their bodies, entrapping them and sometimes sawing into their flesh until they die from infections or starvation. Or they can‘t make it to the surface anymore and drown. Those who escape can be left with painful injuries.

Entangled whale - Whale conservation

And please don‘t think that farmed seafood/fish is any better. Lots of pollutants, medicine being fed and spread to and by the fish, lots of inbreeding with natural fish stocks that weakens the genetic pool of the wild strains and feeding farmed fish with fish meal from wild fish are just a few of the big issues regarding this topic. There is a good overview of these issues by the WWF here:

There is also a red list published and updated by Greenpeace with fish species that you should try to avoid eating. Have a look at the guide per country by WWF below.

There are many lists by different NGO‘s about companies that do a better or worse job at supporting sustainable fishing. To find fish with the lowest impact, look out for pole and line-caught or one-by-one fishing.  Find examples here:

By eating less and being more mindful of the fish that you buy you can make a difference, because it sends a message to the fishing and retail industry to make stronger efforts to protect whales and dolphins. Some people are making a conscious decision to stop eating fish altogether. This is a personal choice, but it can be a powerful one.

 

CO2 Emissions reduction

There is a million things you could do to when it comes to your carbon footprint and thereby your influence on climate change that is impacting the smallest organisms of the ocean to the largest cetaceans. Traditional feeding grounds might shift or deplete completely because of warmer waters that some cold water fish can‘t inhibit. Opening ice means less sheltered places for species like the narwhal that their predators – the orca couldn‘t reach before. Cut the car: bikes, buses, skateboards, feet – use them! It´s good for the environment, and the more active you are yourself, also for your health.

For more information, check here:

europa.eu/youth/get-involved/sustainable-development/how-reduce-my-carbon-footprint_en

And for a full guide, refer to here:

www.nytimes.com/guides/year-of-living-better/how-to-reduce-your-carbon-footprint

A good way of general thinking is to make „Reuse, Recycle, Repair“ your official motto and guideline for all kinds of consumer choices and everyday decisions.

Keep the ocean trash free - Whale conservation

 

Get active!

Volunteering is a great opportunity to get close to your beloved whales and dolphins, while at the same time get hands on in whale conservation work. You can contribute to the conservation efforts of these magnificent creatures. You can also join activities such as identification projects to help understand their migration and distribution. There are countless providers and offers and you can easily find them online.

You can find programs here, but there are many other websites too:

Wherever you might be living, join some local clean ups if you can. There is likely some water body close to you and so any material will be transported into the ocean sooner or later. You can prevent that by helping your community to stay clean. This is one of the most direct and rewarding ways to fight (ocean) plastic pollution. You can also  go to a waterway and collect waste on your own or with friends or family. Even make a competition out of it, with the one collecting most rubbish winning a prize, if that´s something your group of people would enjoy. Just be creative about it and make it fun.

Cleaning up beaches - Whale conservation

 

Join Citizen Science Projects

Science often sounds boring or dry, but this is actually fun. You get to take all the beautiful shots of the animals – especially the flukes of humpbacks and dorsal fins of orcas and upload them, so that scientists can identify them and thereby deduce their migration routes and different kinds of behaviour that might then eventually lead to management strategies like Marine Mammal Protected Areas or legislation regarding reduced speed among others. Check these pages among others:

Donate

Lots of research is needed to understand these beautiful cetaceans. This understanding will make it easier to make good management decisions and lead to science based best practices for responsible whale watching among other activities (fishing). You could help organisations keeping their amazing work up by supporting them financially. There are also lots of programs out there to adopt whales and dolphins. It´s a wonderful way to support an individual that you are particularly interested in and observe how its doing.

You can find examples here:

 

Visit whale-friendly restaurants while in Iceland and help whale conservation

People want to try whale meat for different reasons during their stay in Iceland. It might be sheer curiosity for the taste or because it is marketed as a traditional Icelandic dish. However, this is a marketing lie: in a 2018 survey only 2% of Icelanders reported that they eat whale meat regularly, which means six times or more per year. 84% said they had never eaten it!

Tourists are now creating the highest demand for whale meat in Iceland. The meat came from minke whales- hunted right here in Faxafloi Bay. Since the COVID pandemic, the company has stopped its activity. However, one company remains that continued the hunt of the vulnerable fin whales in 2022 again.

But things are changing: between 2009 and 2017, the number of tourists who said they tried whale meat dropped by 70%. Now less than 10% of the restaurants in Reykjavik offer whale meat, while more than half signed up to be “whale friendly”. The pressure is increasing. Please only visit these ones, if you want to encourage change. You can often find them with the help of the logo: „Meet us, don‘t eat us“ as shown below.

You can also sign a petition to end whaling in Iceland here:Meet us, don't eat us! Whale conservation

Some good news at the end: the Fisheries minister said that whaling no longer seems to be a profitable activity as demand dwindles. Therefore it seems likely that whaling might be stopped in 2024, when current licenses will expire. Hurray!

 

See things in perspective

Things can look very dire in some of the documentaries and the news you can find online. Big issues like by-catch, whaling, plastic and noise pollution, entanglements and climate change: the list is endless of what is going wrong and how much cetacean species are suffering. I’m certainly not here to tell you that it´s all not so bad. What I want to point out to you is that there is another side of the coin: Things are actually getting better in many ways. Just some examples: following the whaling moratorium, the population of Western gray whales increased from 115 individuals in 2004 to 174 in 2015. The western south Atlantic humpback population, which numbered fewer than 1,000 for nearly 40 years, has recovered to close to 25,000. Also in the north Atlantic, including Icelandic waters, populations have recovered to perhaps pre-whaling levels and number over 12,000 animals. The population of bowhead whales in the Bering-Chukchi-Beaufort seas has been increasing annually at over 3% since 1978 and may be approaching pre-exploitation levels. In 2011 its abundance was nearly 17,000 animals. The majestic blue whale is recovering throughout its range.

Many populations and species are slowly recovering (while others are continuing to decrease). Our perception of cetaceans has changed and we start to care more about them. Instead of hunting and killing them, we often choose to join whale watching tours in order to see them. Around 100 million people from high income countries have participated in whale watching at some time, a figure that is increasing by 10 million each year.

As an individual I often feel overwhelmed about how little influence I really have on all the pressures and systematic issues there are that are affecting cetaceans and other animals and their ecosystems around the globe. I try to take a minimalist, but optimistic approach. Everything I do or change out of love and compassion for another species is already a tiny step that wouldn’t have been made, if I didn’t care. And as awareness and respect are rising in many individuals we can really transform our lifestyles and make a difference within our lifetime. The beautiful humpback whale is already projected to make a full recovery to pre-whaling numbers by 2050 .

 

Written by Daniel Blankenheim

Beluga whale - whale conservation

Resources

Plastic pollution

  1. https://www.oceanicsociety.org/resources/7-ways-to-reduce-ocean-plastic-pollution-today/
  2. https://www.nationalgeographic.com/science/article/plastic-produced-recycling-waste-ocean-trash-debris-environment
  3. https://www.nationalgeographic.com/science/article/animals-eat-ocean-plastic-because-of-smell-dms-algae-seabirds-fish
  4. https://news.climate.columbia.edu/2018/05/11/can-fight-plastic-pollution/

Whaling

  1. https://www.paciorg/blog/ways-to-save-the-whales/
  2. https://www.ifaw.org/international/journal/saving-whales-iceland-ifaw-approach-jalou-langeree
  3. https://www.ifaw.is/
  4. https://www.ifaw.is/history/
  5. https://uk.whales.org/our-4-goals/stop-whaling/whaling-in-iceland/
  6. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Whaling_in_Iceland
  7. https://grapevine.is/news/2022/03/23/company-aims-to-hunt-whales-this-summer/

Whale Watching

  1. https://icewhale.is/

Whale recovery

  1. https://www.awe.gov.au/sites/default/files/documents/cetacean-snapshot.pdf

Fish Eating

  1. https://uk.whales.org/our-4-goals/prevent-deaths-in-nets/

Lifestyle changes

  1. https://europa.eu/youth/get-involved/sustainable-development/how-reduce-my-carbon-footprint_en

Even in the oldest written literature of Iceland, the sagas of Icelanders, dating back to events in the 9th, 10th and 11th century, there are almost no accounts of whaling in Iceland, except for some feuds between families about whale carcasses on the beach. Historically it were foreign countries that starting hunting whales commercially here (Basques, Norway, Danish, Dutch) in the 17th century. In the 18th century, it was mostly Frensh and US Whalers that hunted right whales further North. In 1883, the Icelandic government granted permission for Norway to build whale hunting stations in Iceland. By the early 1900s whale populations were depleted and Norwegian companies moved to the Arctic. Between 1895 and 1905 a total of 10,475 whales had been killed, mostly by Norwegian operators. It seems that Icelanders themselves never participated in the European commercial whaling of the seventeenth to twentieth centuries.

However, In 1948 an Icelandic company, Hvalur h/f, established a whale hunting station in Hvalfjordur (close to Reykjavik) and by 1975 killed on average 250 fin whales, 65 sei whales and 78 sperm whales each year, in addition to some blue and humpback whales. Most of the whale meat processed was exported to the UK, whilst meal was used as domestic animal feed. Until the end of the 20th Century Icelandic operations resulted in approximately 17,000 whales being killed within Icelandic waters. A whaling moratorium came into full effect in the year 1986 (that Iceland never formally accepted). From 1990 to 2003 no whale hunting took place in Icelandic waters. Whaling resumed in Iceland in 2003 after a 13-year hiatus. It was mostly Fin and Minke whales from there on.

Whaling in Iceland

Recent years

In Iceland’s last full season in 2018, 146 fin whales and six minke whales were killed. Fin whales are listed as endangered species and not even Norway or Japan hunt them. Fin whale meat products are exclusively exported to Japan as there is no domestic demand. But  because Japan returned to commercial whaling in 2019 after withdrawing from the International Whaling Commission (IWC), even this demand for Icelandic whale meat has decreased dramatically.

Whaling was temporarily paused in Iceland between 2019 and 2021 as coronavirus restrictions, competition from subsidized Japanese whaling, and increasing domestic whale watching tourism have hampered the industry. There were two companies until 2020 when one of them stopped. This was the one hunting minke whales. Hvalur hf remains the only company that continues its whaling practices for the endangered Fin whales and is planning to continue operations in 2022. I saw them going out already. A weird feeling when you are on a whale watching boat and see a whaling boat headed out into the bay. Hvalur is operating outside of the Old Harbour, right here, where our whale watching tours start. Their ships are marked with an „H“ (Hvalur 8 and Hvalur 9).

Whaling in Iceland

Curious minke whale

Why Whaling?

Tourists visiting Iceland remain the largest consumers of (Icelandic) minke whale meat. A 2009 Gallup survey for IFAW (International Fund for Animal Welfare) found that 40% of tourists admitted to sampling whale meat: by 2015, this figure had fallen to 18% and by 2017, had dropped still further to 11.4%. Given that over 2.3 million tourists visited Iceland in 2018 and a further 2 million in 2019, it is incredibly important to reach all of you, who come to Iceland, with the message that whale meat is neither traditional nor a popular dish locally. In fact, in a 2018 Gallup poll for IFAW only 2% say that it is a regular on their plates, which means six times or more per year. 84% said they had never eaten it! Domestic demand by tourists is now covered by imports from Norway.

It is an undeniable fact that every whale killed is one fewer to be potentially enjoyed by whale watchers on tours, especially considering that all minke whales killed were previously harpooned close to the whale watching area in Faxaflói Bay. It must also have affected their behavior, as they still seem to be more shy and elusive than other cetacean species around the boats. Of course, we here at Special Tours, as a sustainable whale watching company have confronted the whaling companies and often spoke out publicly against the hunts.

What you can do about it

Some good news at the end: the Fisheries minister said that whaling no longer seems to be a profitable activity as demand dwindles. Therefore it seems likely that whaling might be stopped in 2024, when current licenses will expire. Hurray!

Here at Special Tours, we take joy in showing off the wonderful animals that feed in the bay of Faxaflói throughout the year. As a whale-friendly company, we are strongly committed to the idea of sustainable tourism, and we always do our best to minimize our disturbance on these amazing mammals on our tours. Protecting whales, dolphins, and porpoises (collectively known as cetaceans), however, also involves knowing what threats they face around the world. Unfortunately, whales face a variety of threats, which are mainly due to human activities. To raise awareness, we would like to highlight some of the main direct threats to whales and talk about what you can personally do to help reduce these impacts.

 

Plastic Pollution

Photo by Andrew Sutton, WDC Ambassador

 

Every year, millions of tons of plastic enters the oceans around the world. The main land-based source of this pollution is runoff from landfills next to bodies of water. Rainwater causes trash to flow into rivers, which then flow into the ocean. Meanwhile, out at sea, illegal dumping from ships contributes a lot of pollution as well. All this trash can be extremely noticeable in some spots – for example, there is a massive garbage patch in the north central Pacific Ocean that has reached a staggering size, as much as 1.6 million square kilometers. That’s more than 15 times the size of Iceland!

This plastic can take extraordinarily long to break down – for example, a normal plastic shopping bag can take up to 1000 years! When plastics break down, they create tiny particles called micro-plastics which then circulate throughout the ocean, making their way into the food chain and are eventually eaten by whales – or even humans. This is a large problem because the chemicals used to manufacture these plastics can be toxic, and some are known to cause diseases and birth defects. If whales ingest large pieces of plastic directly, it can cause them to choke, or fill up their stomachs and lead to starvation.

 

 

What can you do?

If you stop the use of single-use plastics, such as straws, cutlery, and shopping bags, you can not only help reduce the demand for these products, but also lower your personal contribution to this plastic nightmare. Instead of plastic straws, choose easily biodegradable paper straws, or reusable metal ones. Instead of plastic cutlery, keep a metal fork and knife in your car, or you could even choose biodegradable, plant-based “plastic” cutlery, such as by Vegware. And bring a sturdy, reusable shopping back with you to the supermarket.

If you want to go a step further, you can ask businesses you shop at, and restaurants you eat at, to consider switching away from single-use plastics. Those plastic take-out containers might keep your food safe on the trip home, but thick paper cartons will do the job just as well. And if you’re out for a walk and notice a plastic six-pack holder or shopping bag on the ground, take the minute and place it in a nearby bin. These are small steps, but if we all follow them, then they will make an impact.

 

Entanglement

Photo of entangled humpback whale by Ed Lyman, NOAA

 

Whales of all sizes are vulnerable to entanglement in fishing gear, and this risk only increases as fisheries around the world grow in size. What may happen is that a dolphin or porpoise sees fish caught in a net, and may try to eat them, getting itself entangled. Or, the thin filaments used in these nets may just not be visible to these animals, and so they become entangled by mistake. Because whales are mammals, and they must rise to the surface to breathe, this can cause these animals to drown. If they survive these entanglements, the fishing gear can leave wounds, infections, and result in scars to form.

A recent study which analyzed these scars concluded that a significant percentage of all humpback whales spotted in Icelandic waters have been previously entangled in fishing gear (Basran et al., 2018). These incidents might happen anywhere along their migration route, and they aren’t just from nets that are actively being used – whales may also become entangled in “ghost nets”, or nets that float around, unused, having been broken off or discarded carelessly. Ghost nets not only pose an entanglement threat, but also contribute to plastic pollution – see above.

The world’s smallest whale, a species of porpoise known as the vaquita, is unfortunately also the world’s most endangered whale. This is entirely due to entanglements – in their habitat, the Gulf of California in Mexico, an illegal gillnet fishing industry exists to hunt the totoaba, a large fish species. Vaquitas unfortunately become entangled very easily in these nets, causing them to drown. The most recent population estimate of this species is only 30 individuals, and so they are on the brink of extinction.

 

 

 

What can you do?

If you do any recreational fishing in areas where dolphins or porpoises might be found, it is important to always pull your line up if they approach the boat, and to never feed wild cetaceans. If they become very used to fishing boats, this puts them in danger of getting entangled in nets or fishing line (or even swallowing a fish with a hook in it – ouch).

If you aren’t a fisher, but you buy seafood, make sure to always look for “sustainable seafood” or “dolphin-safe” labels on the food you buy. The fishers these companies obtain their food from conduct their catches in a way that is as safe as possible.

If you are by chance a commercial fisher, then there are ways to reduce the chances of cetacean entanglement, such as affixing pingers to the nets – small devices which emit sound and make them easier for animals to detect. They are very low-cost, only about €4.50 per year per kilometer of fishing net! And soon, a type of net that includes barium sulfate should become more widely available – this compound makes fishing nets much easier to “see” using echolocation, which toothed whales use.

 

Noise Pollution

It would be nice to hand these out sometimes. Image from OceanCare

 

The ocean is a noisy place! The three main sources of noise pollution in the ocean are ship noise, gas and oil exploration, and sonar from military vessels. The largest ships that sail across oceans, such as container ships, oil tankers, and cruise ships, need incredibly powerful engines to power them – some more than 100,000 horsepower, and guzzling up to 16 tons of fuel every hour. And all that machinery makes a lot of noise, in the same range that whales use to communicate. This interferes with their ability to hear, including echolocation, and can sometimes result in them being struck by ships – but more on that later.

When oil and petroleum companies scout out potential areas to place oil rigs and start drilling, they first conduct seismic surveys to analyze the geology of the seafloor to check if there could be oil underneath. The air guns used in these surveys produce incredibly loud and intense bursts of noise, meant to penetrate hundreds of kilometers into the ocean floor. And these bursts can be disastrous to marine life, killing not only cetaceans but also seals and zooplankton. Whale stranding’s are often associated with these surveys. Farther away the effects are reduced, but they can still damage whales’ ears, or cause them to stop breeding. Overall, the effects of a single seismic survey may cover 300,000 square kilometers – 3 times the size of Iceland.

Another major source of mass stranding’s is from the use of sonar by military ships, especially during exercises and practices. Sonar began to grow in popularity around World War II, when it was used mainly to locate submarines. But the frequencies used in this sonar can be very harmful to whales, either causing direct injuries such as ear damage, or causing them to panic and surface too quickly, leading to decompression sickness, like human scuba divers can get. This can especially affect beaked whales, the deepest-diving of all mammals. Dozens of mass stranding’s over the past decades have been associated with naval sonar, but because these military activities are often classified, there may be many other mysterious mass stranding’s that could have been caused by sonar as well.

 

Image from NOAA

 

What can we do?

Further development of renewable energy that doesn’t rely on fossil fuels, as well as reductions in these military sonar exercises, would go a long way towards making the oceans a quieter place. And if you do decide to go whale watching, either here in Iceland or elsewhere in the world, make sure to choose a company that follows all local regulations – and even better if they adhere to a Code of Conduct. These companies do their best to minimize sound production from engines and propellers while whales are in the area. The Icelandic Whale Watching Association (IceWhale) has been maintaining its Code of Conduct since 2015.

If you are the skipper of a recreational fishing boat, and dolphins (for example), happen to approach the boat, turning off your fish finder might just reduce the noise that these animals must deal with every day.

 

Whaling

Photo of fin whale being processed, courtesy of IFAW


Whaling as a practice has existed for thousands of years. In times of starvation, a single whale could feed a hungry village for weeks. But this whaling for survival, or “subsistence whaling,” is far different from the commercial whaling that still unfortunately exists today. The whales that swim in our seas today form just a fraction of their numbers from before commercial whaling came along. A recent estimate suggests that during the 20th century (1900-1999), nearly 3 million whales were hunted as part of commercial whaling, and hundreds of thousands more over the previous two centuries.

Today, there are only 3 countries that still allow the practice of commercial hunting: Norway, Japan, and Iceland. Here in Iceland, the 2 species that have been hunted over the past few years are the fin whale and minke whale. While the minke whale population has not been listed as threatened, fin whales have been added to the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, and have been classified as either vulnerable, or endangered. All countries that allow commercial whaling claim to have quotas that result in sustainable catches, which would not affect the overall population long-term – but it is very difficult to estimate their population in the first place.

 

 

What can you do?

Minke whale meat is unfortunately still served in restaurants and sold in supermarkets here in Iceland. But only a minority of Icelanders still eat whale meat – the most recent survey revealed less than 2% of Icelanders eat it on a regular basis, and more 80% never eat it. Most of the demand comes from foreign visitors. While you are here, make a point to choose “whale-friendly” restaurants. Many of them have pledged to not serve whale meat, by placing a sticker in their window that says, “Meet us, don’t Eat us!”

Ending whaling in whale watching areas has already revealed noticeable impacts. In Summer 2018, when the minke whaling season stopped partway through, whale watchers in Faxaflói Bay began to see a noticeable increase in curious minke whales that would approach boats.

You can also add your name to the petition organized by the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW), to help show the world that eating whale meat is indeed a dying practice: https://ifaw.is/signup/.

 

Ship Strikes

Bayou, a humpback whale spotted off the coast of Massachusetts, is believed to have been struck by a ship to produce this unique tail. Photo from Boston Harbor Cruises

 

Whales being struck by boats and ships is a widespread issue that can affect any species swimming where vessels may also travel. Although in general, whales react and respond to danger very quickly, in some cases their ability to react (and escape) can be reduced. For example, if they are resting, nursing a calf, feeding, or even reproducing, they may be less aware of their surroundings and become more vulnerable to being hit by a vessel. In nearly every well-studied whale population, individuals have been found bearing the marks of ship strikes, from injured dorsal fins to scars on their backs. Unfortunately, many whales do not survive these encounters.

The North Atlantic right whale, the most endangered of baleen whales due to centuries of whaling, now faces a new threat in ship strikes. As commercial shipping increases every year, passing through their habitats, they become more at risk. And because climate change is reducing the amount of Arctic sea ice that stays throughout the year, more potential shipping routes are opening up, further adding to this risk.

 

Photo from BearandBlue.com

 

What can we do?

In the United States, the states of Massachusetts and California created laws in 2009 and 2013, respectively, to redirect shipping channels going through areas where many whales can be seen, in an effort to reduce ship strikes. If this continues around the world, and in other countries, then we may be well on our way to help reduce this issue.

When piloting small recreational vessels in coastal waters, make sure to always obey all posted speed limits and signs with “No Wake” warnings. Not only do these help prevent accidents with other boats, but going at a steady pace can help skippers more easily notice and avoid marine mammals such as whales, dolphins, porpoises, seals, and manatees.

 

Blog by Jonathan Rempel
Instagram: @jon.rempel
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