Published July 23, 2012
“Quick! We’re missing them!” 22-year-old Jongmi Lim says.
A herd of six baby-faced volunteers hustle across the harbour toward the group of tourists leaving their whale watching boat. They manage to snag one family before the rest of the tourists shuffle away. “Would you like to help save the whales?” Jongmi, who is South Korean, asks a Swedish couple and their son. “All you have to do is write your name and country here.”
They oblige. It’s the volunteers’ third catch of the day.
The volunteers—donning grey raincoats with the turquoise International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) logo—are patrolling the Faxaflói Bay harbour, searching for foreign visitors who will pledge to not eat whale during their trip. One Italian girl dresses in a heavy whale tail costume, her face peaking through the front. These are IFAW’s foot soldiers in the organisation’s second year of the war on whaling—also known as the “Meet Us, Don’t Eat Us” campaign.
It’s their second day on the job, and it sometimes shows. They approach many people timidly, and they haven’t quite nailed down their sales pitch for why these tourists should not order a whale steak for lunch. “I’ve been trying out different sentences,” says 21-year-old Joanna Blasko, who is from Sweden. “Sometimes we ask ‘Have you made your whale promise?’ But that can confuse people so then we just ask if they want to save the whale.”
Firing Up The Campaign
Sigursteinn Másson, a journalist-turned-activist who manages the anti-whaling campaign for IFAW, says this year’s version of the “Meet Us, Don’t Eat Us” campaign is bigger, complete with more volunteers and a research vessel that will study whales this fall.
The group will push both for sweeping and incremental changes to whaling practices. Most immediately, they hope to influence the ministry to end whaling in Faxaflói Bay and in some northern waters, he says.
While animal conservation laws ban whaling in most of the world’s waters, Icelandic ships have hunted whales commercially most recently since 2006, flying in the face of a 1986 moratorium on commercial whaling by the International Whaling Commission (IWC). Ásta Einarsdóttir, an alternate commissioner for Iceland to the IWC and a top administrator at the Ministry of Fisheries and Agriculture, says the country supports “sustainable utilisation of all marine resources,” including whale. The ministry set the minke whale quota at 216 this year, a number she says is in line with advice from Hafró, Iceland’s Marine Research Institute.
The goal for this crop of volunteers is to gather 2,000 signatures in two weeks to bring to The Ministry, a lobbying tactic in the organisation’s efforts to curb whaling in Iceland. By the end of the summer, Sigursteinn hopes the campaign will collect 10,000 total signatures.
The fifteen volunteers who live together crammed in a one-bathroom house in Reykjavík, are recruited by the Icelandic non-profit SEEDS, which ships them in and out of the country in two-week blocks. They say they want to end a practice they call cruel and inhumane. “I’ve always been interested in animal welfare so I wanted to come save whales,” Joanna says. “You have to fight this and do this kind of a project where there is whaling.”
Any Attention Is Good Attention
But the campaign may be doing more harm than good to the anti-whaling cause. At least, that’s what IFAW’s main foe, Gunnar Jónsson, says.
Gunnar manages and owns Félag hrefnuveiðimanna, Iceland’s Minke Whalers Association, and maintains that his profits are actually rising this year because of the advocacy against whaling. “We’ve only had more restaurants buying more whale meat because tourists now know that whale is sold in restaurants. We actually have had more demand for whale meat after they started this,” he says. “The nearby restaurants like the Sea Baron are selling more whale meat so I think they’re just shooting themselves in the foot.”
The minke whale, which has overtaken the fin whale as the primary whale now hunted in Iceland, is not endangered. The about 5-tonne mammal is the most abundant whale species in the world—a lonely survivor as humpback and fin whale populations have dwindled.
This year, the minke whale is the only whale in town for IFAW to rally around. Iceland’s sole fin whaling company Hvalur hf. announced in May that they would not hunt fin whales this year because of pay disputes with fishermen and a sagging demand for fin whales in Japan.
About 174,000 minke whales swim in the North Atlantic, according to the IWC’s most recent estimate in 2001. Gunnar says his team of ten whalers—which make up Iceland’s only minke whale company—want to kill 80 minke whales this season. “People don’t know much about whaling and when they talk about whaling it is just emotion,” Gunnar says.
Ásta says the government doesn’t care who is eating whale—whether it’s Icelanders or tourists—as long as the hunt is sustainable and based on scientific advice. “This is a free trade,” she adds. “We are happy if tourists want to consume whale because it is very good meat and very good quality.”
Tugging on Tourists’ Heartstrings
Sigursteinn is hesitant to cast Gunnar and his company as the enemy, or get caught up in too much of that emotion that often shrouds animal rights fights. He’s even invited whale hunters to the organisation’s receptions, he says. (They declined).
“Information is the most important thing when it comes to all this. Everyone can have their opinion, but at the end of the day, the facts will sink in,” he says. And to Sigursteinn, the facts are clear. He says Iceland’s whaling practices are propped up by the country’s budding tourism sector. Foreigners are the ones ordering whale in restaurants—not Icelanders—he says.
When the volunteers approach tourists on the soggy morning in the harbour, they play up the cruelty of killing whales. The whale costume that one volunteer wears personifies the animal. “Don’t eat me,” the girl cries as tourists walk by.
Whale watching businesses are on their side of the anti-whaling activists, too. The morning that the volunteers head out to canvass the harbour, they huddle around Sigursteinn on a boat emblazoned with the logo of Iceland’s largest whale watching operator, Elding. As they walk up the steps to the boat’s bow, they face an Elding poster that outlines the reasons why Iceland’s tourists shouldn’t order whale at restaurants.
“They [tourists] very much enjoy seeing the whales alive in the Faxaflói Bay, but then they go to restaurants in Reykjavík and contribute to brutal whale killings by ordering a whale steak because they think it’s okay once in their life to taste a whale steak in Iceland,” Sigursteinn says. “It’s as if they [tourists] were in Congo and they would say it’s okay to taste a gorilla because they’re here only once.”
The Crux of the Killings
Although the minke whales are not endangered, Sigursteinn and the volunteers adhere to one strict belief: Killing whales is inherently cruel. That mantra has been trumpeted by anti-whaling activists for years, who say research shows that whales don’t die until at least two minutes after they’re hit with an explosive harpoon. “The only way to kill it instantly is to hit the head. If you hit it in the side, the back, it can be a very long death struggle,” Sigursteinn says.
But Gunnar is steadfast, claiming that the kills are quick and painless “99% of the time.” “When the harpoon gets into the whale, the explosive part goes off and it stops the heart immediately so the whale doesn’t suffer,” Gunnar says.
Both claims are tough to back up. Reporters have consistently been denied access to whaling ships, and Gunnar declined to give The Grapevine a trip on board. Sigursteinn says his group tried to videotape whaling tactics in Faxaflói Bay two years ago, but the whalers quickly turned back to shore once they saw the activists filming. “If it’s all that perfect, you know, if it’s the best way to slaughter a big mammal, why not show it?” Sigursteinn says.