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Animals

Scientists dispute claims by CNN that Icelandic whalers killed a protected blue whale

By Staff

  • The animal Marine biologists disagree whether the animal is a blue whale or a blue/fin whale hybrid. Photo/Hard to Port

The whale hunting by Hvalur hf suddenly managed to become even more controversial. CNN reports that Icelandic whalers have killed an endangered blue whale. The last blue whale to be killed by whalers was shot in 1978. The whaling company Hvalur hf. has the right, according to Icelandic law, to hunt 161 fin whales this year. The last time the company hunted fin whales, in 2015, it killed 155 animals. This year the company has already killed 22 whales. 

Read more: Kristján Loftsson‘s whaling generates a 7.5 million USD in losses

CNN bases its reporting on analysis by Adam A. Peck, a professor of biology at the University of Hawaii.

A blue whale or a hybrid?
Peck based his analysis on photographs taken by conservationists who have monitored the whaling operations of Hvalur. On Monday the animal rights organization Hard to Port posted photographs on its Facebook page showing the 22nd whale killed by Hvalur hf whalers. The organization argues in the post that the whale looks like a rare hybrid of a fin whale and a blue whale. The animal has the features of both blue and fin whales, consistent with a hybrid of the two species. Blue whales and fin whales are able to interbreed, and are known to do this on rare occasions. Their offspring are not fertile and cannot procreate.

Professor Peck, however, believes the whale in the photo is actually a blue whale, CNN reports:

"In my opinion, it looks like this is probably a blue whale -- (look at) the way the dorsal fin is hooked, the pointed pectoral fins, and the size of the animal," Pack said.

Although there has been some speculation that the pictured whale may be a blue/fin whale hybrid, Pack noted that it doesn't have the distinctive white lip coloration that is characteristic in fin whales. Furthermore, the mottling on the whale's flank, an identifier similar to fingerprints, looks like that of a blue whale, he said.

Paul Watson, the founder of Sea Shepherd has also claimed the whale in question is a blue whale. Watson has written to members of the Icelandic parliament, demanding the incident be investigated.

Read more: Only terrorist attack on Iceland: The sinking of whaling vessels in Reykjavík on 9/11 1986

Sea Shepherd has long fought against Icelandic whaling. In 1986 the radical conservationist group mounted the only terrorist attack on Icelandic soil when it attacked the whaling station of Hvalur hf and sank two of its vessels in the downtown harbor in Reykjavík. Rather than turn Icelanders against whaling it only served to entrench support for the practice as many Icelanders felt they had a patriotic duty to stand up to foreign radicals who had attacked the country. More mainstream environmentalist organizations were even viewed with suspicion by Icelanders after the attack.

Read more: Support for whaling continues to drop: Only 34% of Icelanders now in support

In recent years, however, support for whaling has dropped rapidly. Only a very small minority of Icelanders eats whale meat. Most whales caught in Icelandic waters are either destined for export or sold to local restaurants who cater to tourists. All fin whale products are sold to Japan, while more than half of the minke whales meat is sold to restaurants.

Read more: Chiefly tourists, not Icelanders, sustaining hunting of mink whales in Icelandic waters

DNA samples will determine nature of whale
Biologists at the Icelandic Marine and Freshwater Research Institute take samples from every whale that comes ashore at the Hvalur whaling station. Gísli Víkingsson, a marine biologist specializing in whales at the institute told the local newspaper Morgunblaðið that the whale has all the characteristics of a hybrid blue/fin whale, but that the institute is waiting for the result of DNA analysis of the samples taken from the animal.

Gísli told the National Broadcasting Service that the institute has seen a few blue/fin whale hybrids in recent years. Six or seven such hybrids are known to have been caught in Icelandic waters. 

While rare, hybrids are not considered particularly important, he pointed out. Blue whales are protected, both internationally and according to Icelandic law. Hybrid blue/fin whales are not protected. Hybrid whales are reported to the International Whaling Commission. Gísli told the National Broadcasting Service that the killing of hybrid whales has never before caused a controversy. 

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