While some whales are being watched by curious admirers in whale watching vessels near Icelandic shores, others are less fortunate. The highly controversial Icelandic whale hunting season is underway, not for the first time, probably not for the last.
February, a day after the centre-right government of Iceland fell, departing Minister of Fisheries Einar K. Guðfinnsson announced a commercial whaling quota for up to 150 fin whales and 100 minke for the next five years. This time, the issue of returning to commercial whaling was especially controversial in Iceland, since it was doubtful whether Guðfinnsson had the authority to make such a weighty decision after his government coalition had burst.
Even though the new left-wing government considered reverting, its hands were tied since this minority government, in place until the elections of April 25, needed the support of the Progressive party, who did not want a reversal. Now that elections have been held and the left wing parties form a majority government, Guðfinnsson’s decision has not been reversed, and whaling has commenced anew.
Do we need all this negative attention?
It has been debated whether or not Iceland needs any more negative international attention, and whether there is any market for the catch. Plus, it is speculated that whaling could reduce the number of visiting tourists, which would be especially worrisome now that the economy desperately needs as much currency as possible.
In spite of these issues, commercial whaling is far from being as widely opposed in Iceland as in the United States and the EU, where the majority of those polled oppose harvesting whales under any circumstance. And even though the EU and the US are Iceland’s most important trading partners, public opinion polls in Iceland indicate widespread support for whaling (about 2/3 of Icelanders support whaling according to recent polls). For international observers, the political costs of the newfangled pro-whaling policy may seem to outweigh any conceivable economic benefits, but in the eyes of many Icelanders, killing a whale is no more inhumane than killing any other animal. Anti-whalers are frequently accused of holding “sentimental” views based on anything but common sense; in fact, there is no active save-the-whales movement in the country.
Back from the brink?
Pro-whalers argue that minke whales and fin whales are far from being at risk of extinction. Secondly, while fishermen are only allowed to catch a limited quota each year in order to protect the fish-stocks from exhaustion – whales eat fish 24/7 – fish that otherwise could be “ours” according to many (although the ocean’s food chain is undoubtedly more complex than that). This time, with unemployment rising rapidly in Iceland, it has also been argued that whaling could provide up to 300 jobs.
Since the 1970s, when whales were designated an endangered species, pressure from environmental organisations, the International Whaling Commission and various national governments to cease whaling has intensified. And if the state of whale population can represent a barometer for planetary health, then the earth’s condition would appear to have improved, as several species, including minke whales and fin whales, have made their trip back from the brink of extinction.
Therefore, protecting them is tantamount to protecting the rainforests. Plus, whales are said to be very intelligent mammals, with a complex, sophisticated communication system and killing them is nothing but cruel. And since whales travel in and out of Icelandic waters, they are viewed as common property resources that should not be exploited without interstate cooperation, even though pro-whalers in Iceland often argue that the whales in “our” waters are “our” resources and that how we choose to harvest them is nobody’s business but our own.
The conflict between pro-whaling states and preservationists has intensified in recent decades and there is no sign of any mutual agreement or understanding in the near future. Icelanders will continue to be criticized by foreigners and environmental organisations for “butchering” an intelligent, endangered species like the whale. When polled, foreign nationals tend to answer that if the Icelandic government allows whaling, they will be less likely to travel to Iceland, which the local tourist industry finds very worrisome. Yet, nothing indicates that whaling has had any negative effect on the tourism industry – visitors keep visiting Iceland and watching its whales, knowing that somewhere in the same ocean, people are shooting them.
So, in spite of international outrage, the majority of Icelanders do not see any reason why the whale shouldn’t be hunted and eaten just like the fish. The pressure on Iceland to stop whaling may seem great from the outside observer’s perspective, and the benefit of continuing it may not look obvious. But the effect of harvesting whales simply doesn’t seem negative at all to the local community. And even though Icelanders, who see the whales as charismatic mammals that need to be protected do exist, they are few.
And not very loud.