Meet Iceland’s Whaling Magnate. He Makes No Apologies.

A fin whale was carved up last month at Iceland’s only whaling station, in a fjord north of the capital, Reykjavik.
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Credit...Bara Kristinsdottir for The New York Times

REYKJAVIK, Iceland — It was a whale sighting, but not the kind the visitors expected. One summer day off the coast of Iceland, on a calm sea, a whaling crew towing freshly killed fin whales chugged past a tourist boat.

Whale cruises are popular in Iceland, and for good reason. There are plenty of things to see — fin whales tend to stay far offshore, but minke whales, humpbacks, dolphins, porpoises and puffins are usually easier to find.

Commercial whaling, it turns out, is not so popular among the whale-watching crowd. While some don’t object to seeing dead whales on vacation — as those tourists did in 2015, and others have since — “most people clearly despise it,” said Sigurlaug Sigurdardottir, a whale-watching guide.

With that in mind, Kristjan Loftsson, the man who runs the whaling operation responsible, had a suggestion for whale watchers who see his boats: “Just tell them to look somewhere else. They can just turn around and look the other way.”

Mr. Loftsson, 75, is the world’s last commercial hunter of fin whales. He has been denounced by environmental groups and his boats have been sunk by radical activists, but his business is legal here because Iceland doesn’t recognize the international moratorium on commercial whaling.

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Credit...Bara Kristinsdottir for The New York Times

Though essentially an international outcast, he is admired by some at home. And even his most passionate critics give him a measure of respect.

Robert Read, chief operating officer of the British branch of Sea Shepherd, a conservation group that has blocked and harassed whaling ships at sea, called Mr. Loftsson “quite a clever man.”

“If you ask him a question, he generally will answer you, but he’ll pause and think before he speaks,” Mr. Read said. “That’s something that we don’t often see.”

Mr. Loftsson likes to say that whale blood runs in his veins.

He and his sister together are the largest shareholders in Hvalur, the whaling business once run by their father. (Hvalur, pronounced KVA-lur, is the Icelandic word for whale.)

They spent many of their childhood summers at the company’s whaling station. Mr. Loftsson watched as whales were brought to shore and carved up by hand. At age 13, he got a job helping out on a boat, washing dishes and scrubbing floors.

“It was fun,” he said of his early days on the boat.

Later, he worked as a deckhand. In 1974, when Mr. Loftsson was 31, his father died and he became head of the company.

Today, Iceland and Norway are the only countries that allow commercial whaling. Japanese hunters operate under a research permit issued by their own government, and aboriginal subsistence hunting takes place in a handful of countries that includes the United States, Canada, Russia and Greenland.

Globally, fin whales are listed as endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, and commercial hunting of the species was halted in Iceland for 20 years, though some whales were taken under scientific permits.

In 2006, the government allowed hunting to resume. (The next year, an assessment by the I.U.C.N. found that populations in the North Atlantic were not threatened. A 2015 survey estimated there were 40,000 fin whales in the central North Atlantic.)

The country has come under steady international pressure to end whaling. In 2013, President Barack Obama called for an end to the hunt. The following year, the European Union led an international protest against Iceland’s whaling.

So far, the government has stood its ground. And the hunt has support in Iceland. Only a third of Icelanders surveyed this year expressed some level of disapproval of whaling.

Fin whales are almost the largest animals on Earth; only blue whales are longer and heavier. Scientists from Iceland’s Marine and Freshwater Research Institute say as long as quotas are respected, fin whales will remain abundant in Icelandic waters.

For Mr. Loftsson and his supporters, whaling is no different than agriculture or fisheries. “If it’s sustainable, you hunt,” he said.

His boats hunt with explosive-tipped harpoons. The charge is designed to go off inside the animal’s body. Sometimes, a second shot is needed. Mr. Loftsson likened that to big game hunting, where an elk doesn’t always die from the first bullet.

Ultimately, he said, the whales “give a few jerks, and then they just sink.”

The dead whale is then secured to the ship and taken to Iceland’s only whaling station, in a fjord north of Reykjavik, where it’s sliced up for meat. Most of it is destined for Japan.

This summer, Iceland’s Ministry of Fisheries has given Mr. Loftsson’s company permission to hunt 238 fin whales.

And hunt they do. It was close to midnight one day late in July when the 50th and 51st whales of the season were hauled to the whaling station in the summer twilight.

Steep, gray mountains loomed as the 70-year-old boat neared the station. A team of workers was waiting, getting ready to flense the carcasses.

As the workers prepared for the processing, which would take place outside, one of them kept the beat with his cutting tool as the soundtrack from “Grease” blasted through speakers at the station.

As the first whale was pulled ashore and the team got to work, steam rose from the station and a smell something like cat food filled the cool air.

Four members of Sea Shepherd had shown up to make sure the world knew what was going on. Armed with smartphones and cameras, they live-streamed the event from a grassy hill above the station.

The group has a long history with Mr. Loftsson.

One night in November 1986, a pair of activists boarded two of his boats in the Reykjavik harbor and opened the seacocks, letting water flow in. The boats sank up to their wheelhouses.

The activists jumped on a plane and never faced trial in Iceland. Sea Shepherd took responsibility for the attack.

The boats were refloated but haven’t been used since. Making them seaworthy again would take a lot of work, Mr. Loftsson said. “I don’t really think it will ever be done.”

It’s unclear whether the whaling operation is profitable. Mr. Loftsson said it was generally doing well, although restarting whaling after the long hiatus had been costly. He also described Japanese food safety procedures as a huge hurdle. He declined to cite numbers.

Mr. Loftsson said he had also had problems moving his product because shipping companies were reluctant to carry whale meat.

One of his projects is to develop a freeze-dried whale powder that could be sprinkled on cereal as an iron supplement. He called the idea “exciting as hell” but acknowledged that the powder could be hard to market.

Whether or not the whaling operation is making money (the company has held investments in other businesses like mainstream commercial fishing), Mr. Loftsson is clearly a successful businessman. Public records show that he was assessed the equivalent of roughly $2.8 million in taxes in 2017, pointing to a substantial level of income for that year.

He also clearly relishes the life.

When he goes to the whaling station, he stays in a World War II-era hut left by Allied forces. It’s nice in the pouring rain, he said, hearing the drops pounding on the corrugated metal roof.

I’m there a lot,” he said of the station, though he acknowledged that he doesn’t do much more than “see what’s going on, get fresh air in the lungs and that kind of thing.”

Still, considering the headaches around his business, is fresh air and the sound of rain worth the trouble? Wouldn’t it be easier to do something else?

“Sure, you can do anything, but why should you stop doing this?” he said. “There’s nothing wrong with this.”

For more news on climate and the environment, follow @NYTClimate on Twitter.

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