A Traveler’s Ethical Dilemma: Icelandic Cuisine

When I travel I enjoy trying local cuisines. It always provides a unique experience, and I love broadening my horizons in this way. During my extensive research and planning for our trip to Iceland, I thought a lot about what kind of food I wanted/needed to try during my time there. I came across many accounts of people eating minke whale as a kind of “when in Iceland” thing. I was immediately conflicted about this practice, and didn’t know what to think about it. So I did some research before making my conclusion about whether I should try it.

What I found was that nearly all minke whales slaughtered in Icelandic waters are eaten by tourists under the mistaken belief it’s an actual, traditional cuisine. The truth is most native Icelanders don’t eat whale meat. Furthermore, the tourist demand encourages cruel hunts for minke whales.

A similar dilemma arises for some other Icelandic cuisines: puffin and horse meats. While puffins are no longer endangered, their numbers are still declining. This creates an ethical issue surrounding their consumption. And for North Americans, eating horse meat seems to be a cultural taboo.

These ethical dilemmas are different from person to person. For me personally, they weight very heavily on my heart. I haven’t been presented with many of these issues during my travels, but I knew this was one for which I would need to tread carefully. In my research about Icelandic cuisine I came across this helpful resource from UCSD, a handy 7-step path to navigating ethical dilemmas.


1. Stop and think: Prevents rash decisions and allows us to mobilize our discipline.

Do I want to eat minke whale?

2. Clarify goals: Clarify your short-term and long-term aims. The big danger is that decisions that fullfill immediate wants and needs can prevent the achievement of our more important life goals.

Short term (full belly and being able to say you ate it) VS. Long term (protection of the minke whale species and the evolution of a more sustainable tourist food culture in Iceland)

3. Determine facts: Be sure you have adequate information to support an intelligent choice.

Here are some of the facts: Minke whaling is wasteful, most of the carcass is discarded and not eaten. Eating minke is not popular in Iceland, so it is not an “authentic” Icelandic experience. All large whale species are protected from being hunted and killed for commercial purposes under a global ban. However, Iceland continues to hunt fin and minke whales under a majorly disputed “reservation” to this ban.

4. Develop options: Once you know what you want to ‘achieve’ and have made your best judgment as to the relevant facts, make a list of actions you can take to
accomplish your goals.

I want to abstain from promoting the minke whale meat business. I will not purchase any products made from minke. I will discourage my friends traveling to Iceland from purchasing minke products as well.

5. Consider consequences: Filter your choices to determine if any of your options will violate any core ethical values, and then eliminate any unethical options.

I will not be violating any core ethical values by not purchasing minke products.

6. Choose: Make a decision. If the choice is not immediately clear, try talking to people whose judgment you respect, and consider if everyone found out about your decision, would you be proud and comfortable?

The choice is now clear for me to not purchase these products. I have many friends who work in wildlife conservation and I know exactly what they would say regarding this decision, and how they would feel if I were to support this business by purchasing and consuming minke.

7. Monitor and modify: Ethical decisionmakers monitor the effects of their choices. If they are not producing the intended results, or are causing additional unintended and undesirable results, they re-assess the situation and make new decisions.


This, of course, is only one very specific scenario. But this decision-making process can be applied very widely to any other ethically questionable situation that may arise in our travels, or even just in our lives.

Happy [ethical] wanderlusting, friends!

1 Comment

  • asmallerfootprint

    Great post! I completely agree, being an informed tourist is ethically and environmentally crucial!

    November 24, 2016 at 1:46 pm Reply
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