The Hvalur hf whaling station in Iceland is under fire after its workers have been accused of slaughtering a blue whale, reports Science Alert.
Known as the largest animal on the planet, the blue whale is critically endangered and has been protected by the International Whaling Commission since 1966.
According to Icelandic law, it is illegal to hunt blue whales and deliberately kill them. But Hvalur hf is now being called out for doing just that by the marine conservationist movement Sea Shepard.
The non-profit international movement claims that the whaling station in Hvalfjordur harpooned and butchered a rare blue whale on the night of July 7, for the purpose of exporting it to Japan’s meat market.
“There has not been a blue whale harpooned by anyone for the last 40 years until this one,” Sea Shepherd officials wrote in a statement on July 11.
The conservationist group publicized footage of the giant cetacean being slaughtered by Hvalur hf whalers, who “posed for photos next to and even on top of the whale in a sign they knew very well this was a rare blue whale,” as specified in the Sea Shepard report.
The slaughtering of the critically endangered animal was also documented on social media by campaign group Hard to Port, which notes that the killed cetacean “shows features of a blue whale (darker belly, all black baleen, bluish color).”
Meanwhile, Hvalur hf CEO Kristjan Loftsson defends his workers, saying that the conservationist movement is wrong and that the killed cetacean was not a blue whale, but actually a fin whale (the second largest after the blue) or maybe even a blue and fin whale hybrid — extremely rare creatures observed only a handful of times.
“To mistake a blue whale for a fin whale is impossible, this whale has all the characterizations of a fin whale in the ocean,” said Loftsson.
The Hvalur hf CEO explained that his fishermen encounter blue whales all the time and recognize the animals by their blowholes, which is how they know to avoid them and keep on looking for fin whales.
“I am absolutely confident that it’s a hybrid,” he concluded.
While the blue whale is critically endangered, the fin whale is listed as endangered. The difference in status allows Icelandic fisherman to receive permits to hunt these creatures, despite an international moratorium on whaling.
If the whale harpooned by Hvalur hf was indeed a fin whale, then the company didn’t technically break the law, explains Science Alert.
Things become a little more complicated if the butchered animal was a hybrid. These creatures are so rare that only five of them have been spotted in Icelandic waters over the last three decades, notes Phys.org.
Since there are no laws in place to protect the blue and fin whale hybrids, this veers the situation into a legal grey area that allows the fishermen to justify their act through a case of mistaken identity.
The case made by Sea Shepard isn’t being helped by the assessment of a Marine and Freshwater Research Institute expert either. According to Gisli Vikingsson, a researcher at the Reyjkavik institute, the cetacean harpooned by Hvalur hf fishermen sports features belonging to both species.
Vikingsson points out that, aside from the obvious blue whale features seen in the photos, the animal also has a large dorsal side with a small dorsal fin — something characteristic to fin whales.
Pending DNA analysis is bound to reveal more about the butchered whale’s true identity. However, Sea Shepard claims that the whalers have mixed parts of the whale carcass with previous captures to prevent an accurate identification. The results are expected to come out at the end of the month.