What Eating Shark and Whale in Iceland Taught Me About Ethics
Photo by Carlotta Girola

What Eating Shark and Whale in Iceland Taught Me About Ethics

Can eating shark and whale meat between scenic geysers and volcanoes bring us back to a pure, earthly paradise and simpler time?
09 January 2018, 11:00am

A version of this article originally appeared on MUNCHIES Italy.

Returning from a trip to Iceland is a sort of “Fall of man” from earthly paradise.

After eight days of blissful nothingness sprinkled with water, wind, snow, ice, and cosmic innocence regained by osmosis, you suddenly return to a life of traffic and shoving people on the train. One minute your gaze is turned skywards to admire the vast horizon, and the next it’s cast downward as you, hunchbacked, search for emails in the spam folder.

You don’t run into many people in Iceland in November. True contact comes in the unparalleled relationship with nature—a force that is as beautiful as it is psychotic and capricious. Never, as in the Icelandic desert lands, have I felt the moral need to protect this part of paradise.

In the shadow of the Aurora Borealis, warmed by geothermal energy, Icelandic greenhouses host the largest banana plantation in Europe.

All photos by the author.

The unpredictable power of ever-changing atmospheric phenomena is punctuated solely by very short parenthesis of anthropic landscape for pure nourishment: Supermarkets, for example. In each market, in the capital city and the most remote villages alike, there’s always a well-stocked banana dispenser. “Ah, gastronomic globalisation,” you’ll all say, “Unsustainable foods that travel thousands of kilometres and cause pollution like there’s no tomorrow.” But it’s actually the opposite: That which could be contradictory is another example of Icelandic sustainability.

In the shadow of the Aurora Borealis, warmed by geothermal energy, Icelandic greenhouses host the largest banana plantation in Europe.

Iceland empties your wallet, but it gives you back a priceless sense of gratitude.

Reykjavik and the few other urbanised areas are pockets of modernity in the midst of this overwhelming sensation of being fully dominated by nature. She, so prosperous and fickle, can make you fall in love with her in just a few hours. Iceland empties your wallet, but it gives you back a priceless sense of gratitude, a cosmic hug with retro hippie vibes that you didn’t think you could possibly feel.

But we’re human, and we’re imperfect ecologists with alternating license plates. And I’m Italian—I’m used to enjoying good food and transforming any meal into a friendly topic of discussion. So, immersed in the poetic silence of dormant volcanoes, I nourished myself in Iceland by trying to respect the fundamental rule of any Italian abroad: To keep a certain distance from spaghetti and to meticulously search for native, traditional food. For eight days my Icelandic diet consisted of salmon, trout, cod, and lamb; and everything was served with broccoli rabe, potatoes, beets, and radishes.

The only exceptions to this arbitrary selection of things were two foods that, despite being wildly typical in Iceland, are also a short circuit of right and wrong in which cultural traditions and ecological sustainability hang in the balance. Two animals (and it’s worth noting that I am not a vegetarian), the first of which wasn’t particularly delicious and the second of which is at risk of extinction (“low risk,” according to the World Wildlife Fund): Kæstur hákarl, fermented shark that “bites its own tail,” and whale meat.

Kæstur hákarl: Fermented shark that “bites its own tail”

The truth is that fermented shark smells like the part of the sidewalk that's not illuminated by streetlights—that is to say, the part that smells like piss.

Fermented shark is one of the more unfortunate side-effects of being someone who’ll taste new dishes at any costs. In the infinite white nothingness covered with sleet, one finds the Icelandic restaurant where they serve 90 percent of the sharks caught accidentally. These sharks literally get caught in halibut fishing nets, where they die, and then they arrive here—where humans have constructed a small exhibition-meets-temple dedicated to them.

The Greenland shark, one the largest and longest-living species on the planet, is toxic. To be rendered edible, it has to go through a long process of fermentation (or putrefaction, if you prefer) that frees it from uric acid. In Bjarnarhofn you can even visit the aging facility, where large slices of shark hang in the open air, resembling cured pig legs in the cellar.

I knew from the start that the shark wouldn’t taste pleasant, and my expectations matched the reality. Shark meat is as white as milk, immaculate, but on the tongue this simplicity transforms into a pungent, sharp flavor that goes straight through your nose and passes down your throat. To be polite, one could compare it to strong, smelly cheese, but the truth is that shark smells like the part of the sidewalk that’s not illuminated by streetlights—that is to say, the part that smells like piss.

Being fished accidentally, it would be a mortal sin to toss this meat into the trash and not take full advantage of this fortuitous “sacrifice.” But there must be some way in the world, just one, to avoid catching sharks. I believe that if one wanted to find it, a means would exist—even though it would absolutely be costly. An avalanche of negative effects would commence, from the inflation in prices of other fish, then the repercussions on the fish market and so on and so forth—and then we’ll have already bitten our own tails again for the umpteenth time. Being consistent no matter what is stupid, but striving to be less stupid as possible could bring something good back to future generations: Not shark snacks, but sharks that actually scamper and swim in the water.

Whale meat

Hordes of tourists galvanized from whale watching, and restaurants where they serve whale meat on the menu.

Driving the length of Route 1 takes you around the entire perimeter of Iceland. In the week I spent driving it, I found it hard to find a restaurant serving more than salmon, radishes, and survival food. Eventually, after driving around the whole island and arriving in Reykjavik, we landed at Ostabúòin, one of Iceland's most visited and acclaimed restaurants, right in the centre of the city.

After a week of the same rotating menu, this restaurant seemed a mirage, like I’d finally landed on a soft pillow stuffed with all the good and just things about civilisation.

On the tasting menu, there’s also a dish based around minor whale meat.

The whale dish I tasted at Ostabúðin.

The WWF alert went off instantly and was amplified in my conscience, as just a day earlier I’d blown kisses to a seal I’d spotted in its natural fjord just the day before. I decided to sweep my feelings under the carpet and try it, relying on my innate curiosity to justify my actions. Whale meat is faintly reminiscent of fish, but in truth, it’s much more similar to beef. It’s flavourful and not very tender, but it’s good, in a word. I can now pin a new badge on my jacket: I’ve consumed whale.

READ MORE: Eating Seal Meat Is a Vital Part of Life in My Community

I digested it, but something in my stomach continued to make me feel queasy. In the days that followed, I discovered that the issue of whale fishing in Iceland has been an open wound for years. It’s a practice related to the country’s cultural heritage, yes, but it’s one that—in the context of 2018—doesn’t make a lot of sense, even if we believe the species isn’t at risk of imminent extinction and if the fishing quotas are respected. Whales aren’t sleeping soundly as it is, especially when you consider the abysmal end they’re subjected to (one that I wouldn’t wish on the talking ones at the cinema).

A recap in defense of Icelandic nature

The contradictions of a traditional food menu in Iceland, which seems (and which should be) untouched, unfortunately exist, and I, as your average Italian, have become completely consumed by them. It’s doubtful that eating shark and whale meat between scenic geysers and volcanoes will bring us back to a pure, earthly paradise and simpler time. It’ll just hasten our tendency to squander marine biodiversity.

In the olden days, maybe kæstur hákarl’s caloric wealth kept an Inuit warm at night, but today we can also argue that we’re out of time.

Posters in Icelandic depicting the faces of smiling animals point you towards bays where you can observe seals in the wild, and take fishing trips where—oops!—sharks get caught in the net. You’ll see a group of tourists galvanised by a recent whale watching trip not far from a restaurant where whale eating is routinely practiced. Nights are warmed with 100 percent clean energy, heating restaurants where you can taste slices of animals at (low) risk of extinction.

Maybe it makes more sense to pay more for a live whale tomorrow than for a dead one today.