Working at a seafood restaurant in Reykjavík has taught me one thing: a lot of tourists (and, for some reason, especially American ones) shudder at the thought of eating puffin. The reason? Puffins are cute, and should therefore not be eaten. Upon hearing such remarks, we Icelanders usually shake our heads and mumble something about our ancestors not surviving on this barren rock for a thousand years by limiting their diet to ugly animals. In the first place, there really aren’t that many animals in Iceland. And secondly, is cuteness really a reason for not eating something? Lambs are cute. Newly hatched chickens: also cute. The cuteness argument resonates with the arguments that folks use against whaling. Whales are supposedly highly intelligent beings and should therefore not be eaten. But research suggests that pigs are also quite clever. Smarter than most dogs, in fact. And piglets are certainly cute. Anyone seen Babe: The Movie? And you still eat bacon?
So, brushing off indignant remarks, Icelanders have continued “hunting” the charming puffin without reserve or shame (note that I put hunting in quotation marks here, for it is not a very macho affair, involving nets instead of guns. Perhaps catching would be a more appropriate term?). Of course there are also tourists who have no reservations about ordering a plate of puffin. And they are quite tasty. The meat is dark and the flavour has been described as “a fishier, gamier version of chicken”.
Ate them all?
However, our Puffin binge may be coming to a close. A recent report shows an alarming 25% decrease in the Westman Islands’ puffin population over the last four years. And with the islands being the puffins’ single largest breeding colony in the world, this is some potentially grave news. The Westman Islands puffin even qualifies as an endangered species now; experts are suggesting a ban on puffin hunting for some years.
The Westman Islanders’ response: No.
Mind you, it’s not because of the fishy, gamy taste. Elliði Vignisson, mayor of Westman Islands, is quoted as saying that although no one makes a living out of puffin catching, and it is not about the money, they still want to keep the tradition alive, claiming it to a cultural thing. The local hunters have convened and graciously offered to cut the hunting days down to only ten a year, which the mayor claims to be responsible, and bordering on self-sustaining. Stopping altogether seems not to be an option in the average islander’s view.
The Great Auk, anyone?
Greenlanders have used the cultural card to justify their whale, polar bear and seal hunting. But for them, harvesting the aforementioned animals happens to be among the pillars on which their society is based. And not to mention also making up a significant portion of their diet.
Cultures change. People evolve. The Great Auk, a penguin like bird about 80 cm tall, was formerly a traditional food of Iceland. Right up until it was hunted to extinction. As far as we know, the remaining two birds were killed on Eldey, an island south of Iceland in 1843.
It basically breaks down to this: stop killing the puffins for a few years until the population gets back on its orange feet. And then we can happily “hunt” them for as long as we like to the horror of every sissy American tourist.
It worked with the grouse, whose population is now reportedly booming after a couple of years hunting ban