Iceland recently announced that its long-time annual whale hunt is coming to an end; citing an extended no-fishing zone, coronavirus social distancing regulations, increasing interest in whale watching and declining exports to Japan as reasons why they won’t be hunting this year.

The decision, celebrated by animal rights advocates, is largely profit-based. This is the second year that Iceland has opted out of whaling. The two Icelandic whaling companies: IP-Utgerd and Hvalur hf, both halted operations. According to Hvalur hf CEO Kristján Loftsson, coronavirus social distancing regulations would make their usual processing of whales impossible. Additionally, the extension of no-fishing zones would require travel further offshore to find whales. Finally, competition with Japan is at an all-time high with new government subsidies for Japanese whale meat.

A moratorium on commercial whaling was established in 1986, however Norway, Japan and Iceland have continued whaling despite the international agreement. According to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), over 30,000 whales have been killed by the three countries since the moratorium was established.

Whales have been hunted for millennia for their meat, oil, bones and baleen (keratin plates inside a whale’s mouth used to filter small shrimp from the water). Advancing technology soon brought many species, including humpbacks, to the brink of extinction. According to National Geographic, due to the increased efficiency of global whaling fleets, it is estimated that more whales were hunted in the early 1900s than in the previous four centuries combined.

The International Whaling Commission (IWC) was established in 1946 to prevent the collapse of the industry resulting from overexploitation. By joining the IWC, member states agree to the regulations that are set forth. After initial regulations failed to halt the decline of whale populations, the IWC called for a moratorium in 1982, which was imposed in 1986 to halt all commercial whaling. The only exceptions being whaling for scientific research, and aboriginal subsistence whaling. Japan joined the IWC but continued hunting whales through a controversial scientific research program.

In July of 2019 Japan made headlines when it left the IWC to hunt whales commercially in Japanese waters, no longer under the guise of scientific research in the Antarctic. Iceland had already been hunting whales commercially since 2006. For Iceland, Japan’s move to resume commercial whaling meant that the prior demand for Icelandic whale meat disappeared. However, whale meat consumption in Japan as a whole is on the decline, dropping from 203,000 tons in 1965 to 4,000 tons in 2015. The industry may not have much of a future.

While demand for whale meat is on the decline, interest in whale watching is on the rise. Turns out, watching whales could be more profitable than killing them. From 2007 to 2018, tourism in Iceland boomed from 485,000 foreign tourists to 2.3 million. The whale watching industry took off as a result, with 345,000 people watching whales in 2018 compared to the measly 72,000 in 2003. Japan experienced a similar trend as the number of people on whale watching trips jumped from 103,000 in 2008 to nearly 234,000 in 2016. In 2017, the whale watching industry brought in ISK 3.2 billion ($26.5 million), according to one report by the University of Iceland’s Institute of Economic Studies. The report states that whaling has no negative effects on tourism, however decreasing demand for whale meat and increasing interest in eco-tourism and conservation could cause more of a pushback to whaling in both Iceland and other the other whaling countries in the future.