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Iceland and commercial whaling


This page has been produced in response to a number of queries received by the IWC Secretariat. The IWC has not expressed a formal view on the issue of Iceland’s resumption of commercial whaling. The Commission comprises over 70 countries and only expresses its view as a body through meetings of the Commission. The information provided below is intended to provide a factual background to this particular issue, not to express a view on it. Individual member nations can be contacted for their views.


In 1982, the Commission took a decision, which came into force for the 1986 and 1985/86 seasons, that catch limits for all commercial whaling would be set to zero (i.e. the commercial whaling moratorium). A number of countries, but not Iceland, objected to this decision. Iceland left the IWC in 1992. By 1994 the Scientific Committee had developed and the Commission adopted the Revised Management Procedure (RMP) for commercial whaling; this is a scientifically robust method for calculating safe catch limits. This has not been implemented, awaiting agreement from the Commission on the Revised Management Scheme (RMS) which comprises additional non-scientific matters including inspection and observation.

Iceland re-adhered to the 1946 International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling on 10 October 2002. Its instrument of adherence included a reservation to the commercial whaling moratorium. The text of the reservation is as follows:

Notwithstanding this, the Government of Iceland will not authorise whaling for commercial purposes by Icelandic vessels before 2006 and, thereafter, will not authorise such whaling while progress is being made in negotiations within the IWC on the RMS. This does not apply, however, in case of the so-called moratorium on whaling for commercial purposes, contained in paragraph 10(e) of the Schedule not being lifted within a reasonable time after the completion of the RMS. Under no circumstances will whaling for commercial purposes be authorised without a sound scientific basis and an effective management and enforcement scheme.

The reservation was not acceptable to all IWC member governments, although at a Special Meeting of the Commission in Cambridge, UK on 14 October 2002, a majority of governments voted to accept Iceland as a member. Further details of Iceland’s re-adherence can be found HERE.


The Commission, while adopting the RMP, agreed not to lift the commercial whaling moratorium until an RMS is in place to ensure that agreed catch limits are not exceeded1. The Commission has been working on such a regime for many years but has not yet reached agreement. At the Commission’s 58th Annual Meeting in St. Kitts and Nevis in June 2006, the Commission confirmed its view that discussions on the RMS remain at an impasse and no further collective work was scheduled. It was understood, however, that this does not prevent individual governments or groups of governments working together on the RMS if they so choose.


The IWC is not directly involved in the IUCN Red List process although some members of its Scientific Committee participate directly or indirectly in providing advice. Given the recent increase in queries over the classification of fin whales, the following summary is intended to provide the interested reader with some factual background.

A detailed description of the Red List process can be found on the IUCN website.

The first thing to note is that at present, the classification of fin whales applies to the species worldwide (called ‘populations’ in the very specific IUCN terminology) not to ocean areas or ‘populations’ in the traditional biological sense. The IUCN Red List Categories and Criteria were designed for global taxon assessments. When applied at national or regional levels, IUCN notes that ‘it must be recognized that a global category may not be the same as a national or regional category for a particular taxon’, thus regional populations may be either more or less threatened than the global assessment.

The fin whale species as a whole was classified as ‘Endangered’ under the IUCN system in 1996 using their 1994 criteria. The classification of Endangered can be made on the basis that the species fulfils at least one of five major and wide ranging criteria. Its definition is:

A taxon is Endangered when it is not Critically Endangered but is facing a very high risk of extinction in the wild in the near future, as defined by any of the criteria ….’

It was noted2 that the current status of fin whales ‘is poorly known in most areas outside the North Atlantic’. The global categorisation of ‘Endangered’ was made on the basis of one of the criteria, namely ‘an estimated decline of at least 50% worldwide over the last three generations (assumed generation time 20-25 years)…..the greatest decline was in the Southern Hemisphere, which had the largest original population’. It should be noted that there will be a major review of the IUCN Cetacean Red List in January 2007, although this will again be at the global level.


The most recent (2001) abundance estimate of common minke whales in Icelandic coastal waters is 43,600 (approx 95% confidence intervals of 30,100 – 63,100). This abundance estimate was agreed by the IWC’s Scientific Committee at its Annual Meeting in 2003.

The most recent (2001) estimate of abundance of fin whales for the area off west Iceland (the ‘East Greenland Iceland stock’) was 25,800 (approx 95% confidence intervals of 20,200 - 33,000). This abundance estimate was first agreed at a joint NAMMCO/IWC Workshop in early 2006 and confirmed by the IWC Scientific Committee at its Annual Meeting in 2006.

NOTE 1: The commercial whaling moratorium sets commercial catch limits on all whale species in all areas to zero. The practical consequence of removing the paragraph that instigated the commercial whaling moratorium is that commercial whaling catch limits would remain at zero until the Commission decides otherwise. The setting of catch limits other than zero would require three-quarter majority support. If an RMS was introduced today and the moratorium lifted, the Scientific Committee’s work on implementing the RMP would only allow it to make recommendations on safe removal limits for some stocks of common minke whale (in the North Atlantic and North Pacific). It is in the process of completing work on western North Pacific Bryde’s whales and it will begin the final two years of work on North Atlantic fin whales next year.
NOTE 2: Reeves, R., Smith, B.D., Crespo, E.A. and Notarbartolo di Sciara, G. (compilers). 2003. Dolphins, Whales and Porpoises: 2002-2010 Conservation Action Plan for the World’s Cetaceans. IUCN/SSC Cetacean Specialist Group, IUCN, Gland, Switzerland and Cambridge, UK. Xi+139pp.