The Hvalur hf company killed and butchered a blue whale last Saturday at their whaling station in Hvalfjordur, Iceland, according to Sea Shepherd, an anti-whaling organization.
The last recorded deliberate capture was in 1978, 40 years ago, according to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature.
Photos show orange-clad crews hosing off the massive whale and examining its carcass. CNN has reached out to Hvalur hf for confirmation of the kill but is yet to receive a response.
Reaching 30 meters long and weighing up to 200 tonnes, blue whales are internationally protected and rarely hunted. Even countries that practice whaling, such as Japan and Norway, typically hunt species other than blue whales.
The photos, taken by Sea Shepherd volunteers who monitor the Hvalur hf station, show enough detail to identify the species, said Adam A. Pack, researcher and professor of biology at the University of Hawaii at Hilo.
“In my opinion, it looks like this is probably a blue whale — (look at) the way the dorsal fin is hooked, the pointed pectoral fins, and the size of the animal,” Pack said.
Although there has been some speculation that the pictured whale may be a blue/fin whale hybrid, Pack noted that it doesn’t have the distinctive white lip coloration that is characteristic in fin whales. Furthermore, the mottling on the whale’s flank, an identifier similar to fingerprints, looks like that of a blue whale, he said.
Although conservationists and organizations have long fought against the practice of whaling, this killing is a particularly sharp blow due to the blue whale’s rarity and protection status.
Blue whales have been protected worldwide by the International Whaling Commission since the 1960s, after decades of what Pack calls “unchecked exploitation.”
According to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), blue whales were nearly wiped out by whaling fleets before regulations were created. A staggering 360,000 blue whales were killed in the 20th century in Antarctic waters alone.
Regulations may have staved off extinction, but blue whales are still a long way from recovery, with an estimated worldwide population of 10,000 to 25,000.
Though bolstered by these new protections, Pack takes them with a grain of salt.
“The IWC is only as good as the nations who have subscribed to it,” he said. “There are nations like Japan that hunt minke whales despite pressures from the US and other countries. It’s not necessarily surprising that individuals from some nations like Iceland may engage in whaling.”
Japan recently faced its own whaling controversy when an IWC report revealed that the country had killed 122 pregnant minke whales in the name of scientific research over a three month period.
“From a research perspective, everything we need to learn about these whales can be taken from a non-lethal approach at this point,” said Pack. “Killing an animal for research purposes is kind of a thin argument. Killing blue whales for sustenance is also pretty poor argument, given that there are alternatives.”
“We’re now in 2018,” he added. “There is no reason to be hunting any cetaceans, including whales.”
Correction: This story has been updated to reflect that it has been 40 years since the last blue whale was deliberately caught, according to the IUCN.