The Onset of Organized Whaling

The Basques were probably the first Europeans to engage in organized whaling. As early as the 12th century, they began to hunt Northern Right whales in the Bay of Biscay. After the depletion of the species in Spanish waters, the Basques expanded their hunt to the northwest.  By the beginning of the 17th century, the Basques were taking whales from the coasts of Labrador, Newfoundland, and Iceland.


Whaling Techniques

Whaling at that time, was a dangerous business, being done with hand held harpoons from small wooden boats. The species hunted, such as the Right whales, were chosen because they were considerably easy targets. They swim slowly and the thick layer of blubber causes them to stay afloat when they die. The name derives from that time since they were considered the ‘right’ whales to kill.


Basques in Icelandic Waters

Sources from the 17th and 18th centuries testify to the extensive whaling carried out by the Basques in Icelandic waters. Some locations in the Westfjords still carry the name the Basques had given them. Recent excavations suggest that they may have operated a land-based whaling station in Steingrímsfjörður. It is uncertain, how the Basques interacted with local communities, but it is likely that they came to terms since both parties benefited from the enterprise. However, in 1615, 32 Basque whalers were killed by Icelanders after their whaling ships wrecked off the coast. This event must have caused much debate as Jón Guðmundsson the Learned wrote a critical account condemning the decision of the local sheriff to order the killings.


Steam Ships

The establishment of steamships in the mid-19th century enabled whalers to hunt the faster swimming whales, like Sei or Sperm whales. The following development of a harpoon with an explosive tip and the ability to pump air into the animal to keep it afloat revolutionized the whaling activities, marking the beginning of the commercial whaling era.


Whaling Station

The first modern shore whaling station in Iceland was established in the 1860’s by two Americans named Roys and Lilliendahl, but the operation only lasted a few years.



In 1883, Norway was granted permission by the Icelandic government to build whaling stations in Iceland.  Eight stations were set up in the Westfjords and another five more were added to the East coast. Two of them were considered to be the largest whaling stations in the North Atlantic at the time and were run by a Norwegian named Hans Ellefsen. By 1902, a total of 1305 whales had been processed.
According to sources dating from 1900, one sperm whale provided around 10 tons of fat, 3 tons of carcass meal and 7 tons of bone meal. The remains of the carcass were simply dumped on shores. The resulting pollution caused many locals to complain about the procedure, as it was hazardous for the sheep who roamed the coastal areas in the search of seaweed. Whaling off the Eastfjords lasted slightly longer than a decade. Shortly after 1913, there were not enough whales left to sustain these whaling stations. The Norwegian whalers moved their activities to the Arctic, where whales were still abundant and the operations more lucrative.



Whaling Restricted By an Act Of Law

By 1915, about 17.000 whales had been slaughtered and it was obvious that this had great impact on the whale populations in Icelandic waters. In the same year, a national law was passed to protect the remaining species, which is considered to be the first whaling ban in history. The law was repealed in 1928, when it was believed that the populations had recovered.


Iceland Enters the Scene for Commercial Whaling

Iceland did not start commercial whaling until 1935, on the basis of a new whaling legislation. It declared that only Icelanders could hunt the whales on Icelandic territory, and that all whales killed would have to be utilized completely. The new law provided the foundation for the first Icelandic whaling station in Iceland, which was established in Tálknafjörður and operated in the years 1935-39. The whaling station in Hvalfjörður (Whale Fjord) began its operations in 1948. During the next four decades, around 300-400 whales were processed each year, summing up to a total of 15.000 whales.


Restrictions on Whaling

In 1950-1985, the whaling had been limited to Fin, Sei and Minke whales. The hunt of Blue, Sperm and Humpback whales had soon been banned after realizing the drastic depletion of these species. Having witnessed the exploitation of the Northern Right whale in the 1900’s, Icelanders attempted to make whaling a sustainable industry.
The Northern Right whale is not the only species that was greatly depleted. Presumably, the gray whales, had been common in Icelandic waters before the species vanished from the Atlantic Ocean in the 17th century. Whaling is meant to be the possible cause of its extinction. They prefer to inhabit coastal waters, which made them an easy target.
Between 1935 and 1985 about 20.000 whales were killed.


The Whaling Ban of 1986

In 1983, the International Whaling Commission (IWC) passed a ban on commercial whaling effective in 1986. Iceland did not object to the moratorium, but Norway opposed the ban at once, and was allowed to continue whaling commercially. The IWC allowed the continuation of whaling for scientific purposes, and Japan and Iceland began to utilize immediately. Environmental organizations harshly criticized the scientific whaling as façade designed to circumvent the whaling ban.

Scientific Whaling from 1986-1989


Fin whale

Sei whale



















Iceland resigned from the IWC in 1991, when the appeal of the Scientific Committee to resume whaling was rejected, but joined again in 2002, with a reservation to the commercial whaling ban. Many anti-whaling nations objected to the reservation, since Iceland had not formally opposed the moratorium after its establishment in 1986. Nonetheless, Iceland became a new member and promised not to resume commercial whaling until at least 2006.