An Icelandic whaling company has been accused of slaughtering an endangered blue whale in a “deplorable act”, provoking anger and condemnation from the international marine conservationist community.
Animal rights campaigners who photographed the whale’s carcass, say it was harpooned and killed off the west coast of Iceland on July 8.
Genetic sampling has been conducted to establish the species of the whale, with experts unable to rule out the possibility it could be a rare blue/fin whale hybrid.
Kristján Loftsson, the multi-millionaire CEO of Hvalur hf whaling company, told the Telegraph he was “pretty confident” tests would confirm the animal was a hybrid species and not a blue whale.
“This whale, when you see it swimming in the ocean, it was like a fin whale,” he explained. “There were no characteristics of a blue whale, it is very easy to tell a blue whale in the ocean.
“They go after it as a fin whale. When they shoot it and take it alongside the vessel, they noticed the ventral grooves, which you don’t see when the whale is swimming in the ocean. This is what we have had with other hybrids in the past.
“It is like a fin whale, it behaves like a fin whale, but after you shoot it you notice [the characteristics] are different to a fin whale.
“It was taken as a fin whale, but it [will] turn out to be a hybrid. I’m pretty confident.”
The last case of a blue whale being deliberately captured and killed was recorded 40 years ago off the coast of Spain.
Commercial whaling has been banned since 1986 under the a moratorium issued by the International Whaling Commission (IWC), however in Iceland the government regulates the hunting of whales having expressed reservations about its prohibition.
Dr Peter Richardson, Head of Ocean Recovery at the Marine Conservation Society, told the Telegraph he believed the animal is a blue whale after analysing the photos.
“This is a deplorable act – the blue whale, the largest animal ever to grace our planet, is endangered and protected under all relevant international agreements,” he said.
“We urge the UK Government, who have historically led global whale conservation efforts, to send the strongest objections to Iceland about the killing of this iconic species.”
Dr Phillip Clapham, one of the world’s leading experts on large whales from the NOAA Alaska Fisheries Science Centre, agreed it was a blue whale photographed at the whaling station.
“While I can’t entirely rule out the possibility that this is a hybrid, I don’t see any characteristics that would suggest that,” he said.
“From the photos, it has all the characteristics of a blue whale; given that – notably the coloration pattern – there is almost no possibility that an experienced observer would have misidentified it as anything else at sea.”
Ocean activists Sea Shepherd UK, who observed the animal close up, said that several experts had confirmed “without question” it was a blue whale.
Humane Society International’s Senior Marine Scientist, Mark Simmonds OBE, called the slaughter, if confirmed, “horrifying”.
“It’s bad enough that Iceland is already killing endangered fin whales, but it beggars belief that this whaling crew couldn’t even tell the difference between a fin and blue whale,” he said.
Sea Shepherd UK accused the Hvalur hf whaling company of “ruthlessly violating international conservation law” and bringing Iceland into “disrepute”.
He added “utterly inappropriate” for countries to “even contemplate allowing a large-scale return to this grossly inhumane and haphazard industry”.
While the Icelandic government permits Hvalur to hunt endangered fin whales, largely for exporting to Japan for human consumption, the killing of blue whales is illegal.
Mr Loftsson added there was “no way” his employees would intentionally target a blue whale.
“We see blue whales all the time on our grounds,” he said. “Blue whales are not rare in our waters and the whalers know exactly what they are doing.
“When we see the blue whales, we leave it and go and look for something else. But these whales seem to like to fool around.”
The whaling magnate said there are an estimated 40,000 fin whales in the area, adding his company has a quota of 151.
The overexploitation by the whaling industry led to serious declines in many of the world’s populations of whales up until the Seventies, according to the IWC, however many are now in the process of recovering.
The blue whale is the largest animal on the planet and weighs up to 200 tons, the equivalent of 33 elephants, with a heart approximately the size of a Volkswagen.
The Government of Iceland confirmed that “blue whales are protected under Icelandic law with their capture prohibited”.
“The matter is taken seriously by the Government and the relevant authorities are investigating this issue,” it said in a statement.
“At present, we are not in a position to confirm the species, although initial information from the Directorate of Fisheries in Iceland suggests the animal caught is not likely to be a blue whale but rather a hybrid of a fin whale and a blue whale. This will only be confirmed once a DNA analysis has been concluded.”