In downtown Reykjavik, several restaurants catering to tourists offer whale meat. Perhaps they find the idea of doing something that’s illegal back home tempting. Perhaps they believe eating whale is a traditional Icelandic experience. Whatever their reasoning, many tourists will choose to eat whale steak during their Iceland vacation.
But the environment is global, and whether you are acting at home or abroad, what you buy and what you eat can make a difference for endangered and threatened species.
Icelandic whalers hunt both the endangered fin whale and the minke whale. It’s the minke that usually shows up on menus. Although this species’ population is the most stable of any great whale, it is still listed under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES).
Statistics are hard to find on how much of Iceland’s whale meat tourists eat. But if some locals defend whaling politically, most don’t have much of a taste for the meat. According to one poll, only 1.7% of Icelanders eat whale meat at least monthly. The rise of responsible tourism may have contributed to the 2022 announcement that Iceland will end commercial whale hunting in 2024.
The news is not always so positive. In April 2019, the last known female Yangtze giant softshell turtle died in a zoo in Suzhou, China. Once plentiful, softshell turtles, like many other turtle species, are prized as food. Habitat loss and overharvesting have driven the species to the brink of almost certain extinction.
Females may still exist in the wild. But it has been several years since Chinese scientists had a confirmed sighting of a wild Yangtze giant softshell turtle. In that case, the specimen was eaten before the scientists could arrive on the scene.
A Global Problem
Turtles are not the only species eaten to extinction. In 2016 an Oxford University professor compiled a list of 301 land mammal species threatened with extinction by human culinary habits. Limited to mammals, that list does not include some of the creatures most affected by the market for exotic foods, including the Chinese giant salamander, Beluga sturgeon, and European eels. Thanks to CITES, most of these species will not be available for sale in the U.S. But travelers should know that just because something is on the menu, it’s not always ethical — or legal — to eat it.
Feature image: critically endangered Beluga sturgeon, photo credit: Максим Яковлєв [CC BY-SA 4.0], Wikimedia Commons. Originally published on August 9, 2019, this article was updated in August 2022.