To outside observers, Icelanders’ attitudes about whaling can seem monolithic: it is a part of our cultural heritage, our right as a sovereign nation to hunt whales, and any opposition is emotionally based and hypocritical. But there is internal opposition to the whaling question, and the closer one looks at the facts about whaling in Iceland, the more difficult it becomes to understand why we do it.
The first misconception that must be put to rest is the notion that Iceland has a cultural and historical relationship with whaling that goes back centuries. While isolated examples of Icelanders conducting whale hunting can be found in the early history of the country, it was actually foreigners who hunted whales off Iceland’s shores for the first centuries of the nation’s existence. Ironically, it was a nationalist sentiment against foreigners whaling in Icelandic waters that led to the country banning the practice from 1913 to 1928. In 1935, however, Icelanders began their own commercial hunting of whales, until they stopped again in 1989. Scientific whaling started in 2003, though, and commercial hunting of minke and fin whales resumed again in 2006—with strong attitudes about national independence and sovereignty again in play, only this time supporting the practice rather than condemning it.
It seems there is a sort of nationalist contrarianism in place here. Research conducted by the University of Iceland in 2010 shows that there might be some truth to this. According to the research paper “Attitudes Towards Whaling In Iceland,” most participants were pro-whaling, considered anti-whaling campaigning to be “sentimentality on par with religion” and expressed a belief that Iceland must stand up to foreign pressure.
The Ministry of Industries and Innovation—under whose jurisdiction whale hunting belongs—is quick to point out that, according to a Gallup poll conducted in February 2009, 77.4% of Icelanders said they supported whaling. However, the ministry omits the fact that this is down from an all-time high of 90% in December 1994. At the same time, opposition has been rising, going from just over 10% in September 2006 to about 20% today. Furthermore, the research from 2010 shows that even those Icelanders who identify as pro-whaling did not always express unconditional support—many of them would qualify their support with “if it does not cost us more” to conduct whaling than to not.
This conditional support might be linked directly to political rhetoric on the subject. The research contends that “whaling has increasingly been presented as an export industry that enhances employment” by pro-whaling politicians such as former Minister of Fisheries Einar K. Guðfinnsson, former MPs for the Liberal Party Grétar Mar Jónsson and Guðjón A. Kristjánsson, and current Independence Party MP Jón Gunnarsson. What these politicians all have in common is that they are all conservatives, and all hail from areas with a vested interest in whale hunting or, in Jón Gunnarsson’s case, have family members directly involved in whaling (his son, Gunnar Bergmann Jónsson, owns the whale hunting company Hrafnreyður ehf).
But what then do we actually gain from whaling, if anything? That’s where things start to get hazy.
Jóhann Guðmundsson, the Deputy Director General of the Ministry of Industries and Innovation, told the Grapevine that the ministry has no idea how many people, exactly, are employed directly or indirectly in the whale industry. When asked what Iceland gains from whale hunting that it doesn’t gain from other industries, he told us, “We maintain that it is the right of Icelanders to hunt whales. We don’t answer this question of what we gain from it; we solely provide the legal framework within which whaling can be conducted.”
Does Iceland have the right to conduct whaling hunting? The ministry unequivocally says that “neither of the two species harvested by Iceland qualify for any of the IUCN threatened categories (‘critically endangered’, ‘endangered’ or ‘vulnerable’) in the most recent regional assessment for North Atlantic cetacean populations,” and that the numbers of whales hunted are “generally accepted values for sustainable catch rates”.
However, Jóhann admitted that “there is no domestic market for whale meat.” He roughly estimated that less than 10% of Icelanders eat some whale meat at some point in the year, “Exclusively minke whale. Icelanders don’t eat large whales [like fin whales].” He added that the government neither financially supports the whaling industry, nor makes an effort to promote whale meat on foreign markets. This would put the onus on exports for the industry to sustain itself.
Yet exporting whale meat does not turn a profit. On the contrary—according to a 2010 research report from the Institute of Economic Studies, “The Macroeconomic Effects of Whale Hunting” (“Þjóðfélagsleg áhrif hvalveiða”) in the year 2009, minke whale hunters reported a profit of only about 600,000 ISK before taking into account write-offs and expenses, and after salary costs of 21.7 million ISK and a VAT paid of 22.3 million ISK. The report also stated that “[whaling] also resulted in losses when write-offs and expenses were taken into account.” Any profit projections in the report are based on being able to sell all the whale meat caught at some unspecified point in the future.
As for exporting fin whale meat, recent events have shown that this might prove difficult at best. Last month, ships containing whale meat that were bound for Japan were stopped in both Germany and Holland and had no choice but to return to Iceland. Shipping company Samskip have since decided not to take part in shipping whale meat. The whale meat now sits in frozen storage, awaiting a buyer and someone to ship the meat to them.
If Iceland doesn’t gain from whaling, is it harmed by it in any way? Rannveig Grétarsdóttir, who owns and operates the whale watching company Elding, would say so.
She dismissed the argument that despite concerns that whale hunting would damage tourism, tourists continue to increase in number. She says that a tourist’s chances of seeing a whale in Faxaflói Bay are steadily declining. “In North Iceland,” she adds, “there were minke whales all over. Now they hardly see any minke at all in Húsavík [North Iceland, where minke whale hunting is also conducted]. If this continues, our business will continue to suffer.”
This conflict of interests between whale hunters and whale watching groups led to former Minister of Fisheries and Agriculture Steingrímur J. Sigfússon creating a “whale sanctuary” around Faxaflói Bay, where whales could not be hunted, in 2009. This area has since been reduced by current Minister of Fisheries and Agriculture Sigurður Ingi Jóhannsson.
Rannveig is also hardly black-and-white on the whale hunting issue. “The most important thing,” she told the Grapevine, “is getting whale hunting out of Faxaflói Bay. They could, for example, hunt them off the coast of east Iceland, where there are almost no whale watching groups, but there are supposed to be whales in the waters.”
Be that as it may, the question remains: if there is no domestic market, exports are sitting in frozen storage for the foreseeable future, and whalers are operating at a loss, is it wise to continue the practice, even if one legally can? That will have to be a question for Icelanders to answer for themselves. For the time being, while most Icelanders support the practice, the dialogue about whaling among Icelanders themselves is far from black-and-white.
Opinions on whaling:
The Case For Sustainable Whaling
Moral Stewards – Re: The Case For Sustainable Whaling