Whale watching attracts more tourists than any other tourist activity in Reykjavík. Tourists who go whale watching are mostly against whaling and come from anti-whaling nations. Yet, by the time they find themselves on a whale watching boat, 19% say they have already eaten whale and the majority say they would eat whale for cultural and historical reasons.
This is a paradox that anti-whaler Sigursteinn Másson would like to tackle. A former journalist, Sigursteinn has been working for the International Fund For Animal Welfare (IFAW) since 2003, when Iceland—after a 24-year hiatus—resumed whaling again. The Grapevine met up with Sigursteinn to learn more about whaling in Iceland and his efforts to stop the practice.
So Iceland stopped whaling for 24 years. Why did it start up again?
When Iceland stopped whaling in 1989, politicians and the public were not happy about it. There were a lot of discussions about in Alþingi; the whaling camp in Iceland has always had lobbies in the political parties.
The public has shown little interest in the issue. When people are asked, they say they are pro-whaling like they are pro-Iceland. It’s not because they have thought so much about it, or because they have studied the issue; it’s out of patriotism. In recent years, I have been trying to find ways to address this, to reach an understanding that people can support Iceland without supporting whaling.
Do you think that Icelanders are mostly thinking of jobs and the economy? Or is it really a patriotic thing?
I think people are realising more and more that this argument, that whaling is creating so many jobs and that it is economically viable, is wrong. But I think people still believe that whales should be killed like any other animal. People often compare whaling to the slaughtering of cows or chicken. From an animal welfare perspective, we can’t justify the inhumane killings of whales by pointing to something that is bad elsewhere. As soon as Icelanders realise that, I am sure we will have a different situation.
You’ve been working on this for eight years. How’s it going?
There have been ups and downs. I have to admit, there was a backlash in 2008 with the economic collapse. People turned back to basic attitudes and values of the past. In many ways it was very good, but in other ways it was not. For instance, the national sentiment became more pro-whaling after the crash compared to the year before the crash.
But I think people are realising that whaling is not very economical, and that minke whaling is disastrous for the whale watching business here in Reykjavík. It’s by far the biggest tourism activity in Reykjavík. So having the minke whalers here in the same Faxaflói Bay killing the same minke is just absurd.
What do you think of Animal Planet’s reality TV show, ‘Whale Wars,’ which documents the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society’s struggle to end whaling? What do you think of their tactics?
They may very well have achieved their goal in the South Pacific. Although I have never seen the programme—I guess it makes for good television—I prefer a more civilised and sophisticated approach like we have been doing here. I don’t think Iceland would be whaling today if the Sea Shepherd had not sunk two whaling boats here [Sea Shepherd founder Paul Watson sank two whaling vessels in the Reykjavík harbour in 1986].
It was like a terrorist attack on Iceland. It made Icelanders determined to never give in. When IFAW, a forty-year old organization, came here eight years ago, it was considered a terrorist group. We are now considered a reliable partner by the government. We take a very soft approach to this issue. We engage in dialogue rather than a typical campaign calling for sanctions and things like that.
So the organisation is more about dialogue—how do you reach individuals?
This summer we will go further in raising the issue publicly in Iceland and targeting foreign visitors. What has happened is that more and more restaurants are offering whale meat on their menu. Two years back there were only a couple of restaurants doing it. The strange thing is that tourists, who are mostly ordering it, say they are opposed to whaling when asked. They also come from countries that are totally against whaling.
A scientist conducted a survey on boats of a whale watching company in Reykjavík. She asked 1500 tourists who were going whale watching some questions. It turned out that 19% had already eaten whale meat in Iceland before going whale watching, and a majority of tourists said they would taste it out of cultural and historical reasons.
The situation in which foreign tourists who oppose whaling are keeping minke whaling alive in Iceland is very ironic. This is an issue that we will specifically work on, and we will be introducing a campaign in the beginning of June. We wouldn’t organise a boycott, but we just think that every person should think twice about what they order, so that they are not contributing to whaling.
I’ve never thought of whaling as being part of Icelandic culture…
And it isn’t in fact. To explain a bit, the commercial whaling, killing big whales, only started around mid last century with Icelanders. And then there was a twenty-four year break. The history of minke whaling is a little bit longer, about thirty years longer. So this is something that tourists coming to Iceland should realise. Whaling is not part of Iceland’s history. Commercial whaling of big whales has been conducted by a single family in Iceland. The father, Loftur, started the company and then his son, Kristján Loftsson, took over the business. So that has been a single-family business.
According to a Gallup poll, only 3-5% of Icelanders eat whale meat regularly. It is neither historically important, nor is it a part of the heritage, nor is it a big part of the culture. So you can say that when it is introduced to our foreign guests in Iceland as historically important and a part of the culture, that Icelanders eat it regularly—that is false.
What’s the ultimate goal of the campaign that you are launching?
Of course the ultimate goal is to have whaling in Iceland a part of its history, where it belongs, and to have responsible whale watching as the only whale business in Iceland. That should be the aim.
Now that Japan and Iceland have stopped fin whaling, I think there is an historical chance to do things right. If there is any animal on Earth that we can look at and say, we have really treated you badly through the centuries, it is the whale. We hunted some of them to extinction and others to endangerment. The hunting has been extremely cruel. It can take up to an hour to kill a whale after the first harpoon hits. It’s completely unnecessary.
I see the whale as symbol of the connection between nature and humans; if we can stop whaling, humanity has grown.