From Iceland — Icelandic Whaling: But Is It Science?

Icelandic Whaling: But Is It Science?

Published September 22, 2006

Icelandic Whaling: But Is It Science?

While the debate surrounding Iceland’s decision to persist in scientific whaling rages on, Iceland’s plans for commercial whale meat sales, both domestically and for export, remain unclear. The BBC reports that Iceland intends to begin trade of whale meat with the Faroe Islands, based on statements made by Stefán Ásmundsson, Iceland’s whaling commissioner. However, when the Grapevine previously contacted Magnús Þór Hafsteinsson, Liberal Party MP, for comment on whale meat export he denied knowledge of any plans to export to the Faroes. Concerning international trade, Hafsteinsson did state, “We’d been trading with Japan when we hunted whales [in the past], and we have to be sure that we can do that again. We have to find buyers, if commercial export is going to be feasible.”

Obviously, a decision to trade internationally is highly controversial. Economics play a large part in the discourse, though the right to continue in the long-standing cultural tradition of whaling also enters into the argument. “We have full right to start whaling again and I think we should. We hunt mammals on land, why shouldn’t we hunt mammals in the ocean? I don’t know why [we] shouldn’t be able to use all of nature’s resources. Politics, of course, is making this difficult for us,” Hafsteinsson said.

According to the UN’s CITES restriction ban (Convention on International Trade of Endangered Species), trade of listed animals with ratifying nations is illegal. The Faroes, technically a dependent of Denmark, which has signed onto CITES, are principally a self-governing territory and are now part of a grey area in which the legality of a whale trade is uncertain. Iceland has exempted itself from the CITES ban to continue hunting minke whales. Iceland has been whaling for research purposes since 2003, and the CITES restrictions are the main obstacle standing between Icelandic whalers and participation in international trade, Hafsteinsson told the Grapevine. “So far the few minke whales that we have hunted in recent years have been sold in Iceland to the Icelandic market, but if this is going to make any sense we have to be able to export the products,” Hafsteinsson said.

However, commercial whaling is not the only way in which Iceland can profit from the minke population,. Whale watching is popular among Iceland’s tourists and brings in significant revenues each year. Some fear that continued hunting, regardless of the stated purpose, could hurt the tourism industry. Speaking to the Grapevine, a spokesman for Greenpeace U.K. stated that, “The whale-watching industry in Iceland stands to bring in a lot more revenues than commercial whaling and continued whaling can only be damaging to what whale watching and tourism do for the economy. It can also be damaging to Iceland’s international reputation.”

Greenpeace reports collecting “69,000 signatures from people who would like to go to Iceland as tourists, but will not until Iceland stops its scientific whaling program.”

Elding is one of the Icelandic whale-watching companies whose employees’ livelihood rests on continued tourism in the country. While Elding did not respond to requests for further information on how they anticipate whaling efforts will impact their business in the coming year, they did state in a phone conversation that, “Of course, we are quite worried about the situation right now” because of vested business interests.

Even as Iceland prepares to attempt exporting minke, controversy continues to swirl around the actual value of the “science” behind research whaling efforts over the past few years. Clare Sterling, of the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) told the Grapevine, “We’ve actually taken some of our whale-watching research boats out [in Iceland] to conduct some non-invasive research. It doesn’t harm or disturb the animals and yields very good results. We believe that scientific whaling isn’t producing results of any value. We believe that it’s of more value [for Icelanders] to protect their whale species and protect the whale watching industry.” Sterling stated that IFAW has “worked in Iceland for a number of years and actually helped set up whale watching [here] ten years ago and did a study into whale watching becoming an industry [here].”

On these grounds Greenpeace as well as IFAW oppose all whaling efforts, holding that they are a backdoor means of garnering whale meat for commercial purposes. “The facts speak for themselves: scientific whaling isn’t producing scientific results. We would hope that the powers that be will take control and make the right decision. It’s good to see that there’s a lot of debate right now in Iceland and in the media,” Sterling stated. IFAW hopes that the availability of information on Iceland’s whaling efforts will enable people to make decisions that will help to end whaling. Sterling said, “The cruelty and tourism arguments: we would like to see [these] help stop suffering of the whales, which take some time to die.” Greenpeace’s position is that “Scientific whaling is commercial whaling by another name.”

Reorienting Iceland’s whaling industry, from scientific to commercially driven, involves more economic obstacles than simply the limited market created by the CITES restrictions. Those countries currently exempting themselves from CITES include Norway and Japan. In an interview with Árni Finnsson, of the Iceland Nature Conservation Association (INCA), Finnsson stated, “As far as we can see the Japanese market is closed and that’s the only export market there is around… They have increased scientific whaling in Japan in the last couple of years, so it appears to me that the Japanese market is fully satisfied.” When asked if there was a possibility of Iceland exporting minke to Norway, Finnsson said, “Norway has been killing 500 animals [per year] for the last few years. They gave up at 500 and the whalers said that they couldn’t sell any more. That market is saturated.” On the point of the domestic market for whale meat Finnsson reflected that there has never been a viable market for whale in Iceland. “Traditionally the export of minke whales from Iceland was in the range of 200 animals, or perhaps less, between 1975 and 1985. At the same time the domestic market was very limited. I would assume that the domestic market was satisfied after that [number] by poaching the so called ‘drowned’ whales from the nets,” Finnsson asserted.

Greenpeace and IFAW echoed the sentiment of confusion over any attempt Iceland might make at exporting minke. “A lot of polling [has been carried out] in Iceland. We commissioned an economic study last year that showed very little demand for whale meat, especially among young people,” Sterling of IFAW said. “There doesn’t seem to be a market for [whale]. The recent poll in Iceland showed something like 10 percent of people eat whale meat, so it’s obviously not relevant to most [Icelanders],” Greenpeace told the Grapevine.

INCA’s Finnsson agrees that the market is certainly limited and may play a part in discouraging an expansion of the whaling industry, he believes that internal Icelandic politics are also playing an important role in the ongoing debate. “We cannot understand why the government subsidies support whaling. I think it satisfies the prestige of politicians who base their decisions on parochial grounds rather than scientific ones or on conservation,” Finnsson said. “I think that it is muscle flexing. There will be elections for parliament in spring 2007. Minister of Fisheries, Einar Kristinn Guðfinnsson, has been in parliament since 1991 and he’s made some very bold statements on whaling over the last 15 years. He has to live up to his word and therefore he has invested a lot of prestige in whaling. Guðfinnsson is a hardliner on whaling. He comes from the Westfjords and that’s where the [industry] is. That’s one reason: they just want to appear to be tough,” Finnsson stated.

The Department of Fisheries maintains that scientific whaling isn’t at this point driven by commercial interests. In response to queries about the necessity of lethal scientific whaling, they state, “Whale research can involve both lethal and non-lethal methods. Iceland has been active in non-lethal research for many years and continues to make use of such methods when considered feasible for the objectives of the research… However, there are some questions that can not be sufficiently addressed without taking whales, including most of the questions posed by the Icelandic research program.”

Department of Fisheries releases dispute the argument that their efforts are hurting the whale-watching industry directly, stating that “while misinformation might hurt whale watching operators, the research itself will not affect Icelandic whale watching.” Their press releases make no mention of attempts to expand to a commercially driven whaling program.

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