Iceland is often considered an environmentally forward thinking country due to its investments in clean renewable energy. However, the same country is still somehow entrenched in the backward, economically unsound and diplomatically poisonous policies of 20th century whaling.
Exactly why is Iceland so determined to slaughter whales?
Open boat spear-drift whaling did not define Iceland as a modern nation. In fact, from the late 1800s to the middle of the 20th century, whaling in and around Iceland was entirely dominated by foreign companies (mostly Norwegian) seeking profits from whale oil. Of course, as market prices fluctuated and whale stocks collapsed, these companies failed or moved on (Tonnessen & Johnsen, 1982).
The intensity of exploitation was clearly unsustainable and prompted Alþingi to establish the world’s first national ban on whaling in 1915 (Ellis, 1999).
Unfortunately, the 1948 rise of Hvalur HF would prove Iceland to be just as complicit in the decimation of cetaceans as any other whaling country. Powered steel ships with explosive-tipped canon-fired harpoons had dramatically increased the killing capacity of whalers.
The now infamous International Whaling Commission first convened in 1949 with Iceland as a member. Just five years later, Icelanders were already breaking the rules.
In 1954, the IWC officially prohibited blue whale catches in the North Atlantic and Iceland continued to kill them until 1960 (NMFS, 1998). Today, the blue whale remains an endangered species due to commercial whaling.
By the 1970s, most of the large whale species had been decimated. Increasingly strict regulations were casually subverted and activists were embold-ened to take matters into their own hands.
Iceland was killing undersized fin and sei whales (both endangered) and activists responded with daring interference. In 1979, Greenpeace volunteers became human shields in inflatable boats by steering between the whaling ships and the whales. Icelandic gunners fired anyway sending harpoons just over the activists, and the local Coast Guard seized the Greenpeace ship Rainbow Warrior (Day, 1992).
In 1986, members of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society took a much more direct approach by vandalizing a whaling shore station and sinking two unmanned Hvalur ships overnight in Reykjavík harbour.
The IWC eventually took stronger steps to prevent the world’s remaining industries from systematically wiping out all whales. After years of unsuccessful attempts, the commission enacted a moratorium on all commercial whaling to begin in the 1985–86 season (following a 1972 UNEP decision).
Although Iceland voted against the moratorium, Alþingi later agreed to accept it. Japan had other plans and continued whaling under a loophole intended for scientific research. Iceland soon followed with ‘research’ of its own.
In 1985, Iceland’s proposed catch was mostly minke whales and endangered fin and sei whales with a limited experimental quota for endangered blue and humpback whales. The cost of the government-subsidised research would be recovered through the export and sale of whale meat to Japan. However, the public campaign to promote domestic whale meat consumption largely failed leaving most local supplies to spoil or end up as animal feed (Ellis, 1999).
The USA threatened economic sanctions and Greenpeace intercepted shipments of whale meat in European ports. Consumer boycotts of Icelandic fish resulted in the loss of millions of dollars in cancelled contracts. This combined pressure led Iceland to stop whaling in 1989 and quit the IWC in 1992.
In 2002, determined to revive the industry, Iceland made a third attempt to re-join the commission with an objection to the moratorium. At a special meeting, with assistance from the IWC chairman, Iceland’s observers were permitted to take part in the vote. In a divided decision, Iceland effectively voted itself back into the commission while nearly half of the IWC objected to the procedure (IWC, 2009).
During the attempt, it was declared that commercial whaling would not resume until 2006. Therefore, fourteen years after whaling ceased due to international pressure, government subsidised ‘research’ whaling began anew in 2003. Iceland’s Marine Research Institute (MRI) claimed that minke whales were eating too many fish.
Formal protests were issued by Britain and over twenty other nations. Iceland’s own tourism industry warned of the potential backlash. Regardless, in 2006 endangered fin whales were once again hunted by Hvalur HF. Meat exports to Japan resumed in 2008. The following year, Iceland’s outgoing Fisher-ies Minister increased whaling quotas to allow taking up to 150 fin whales and 100 minke whales annually according to MRI’s “scientific recommendations.”
In summary, whaling seemingly continues in opposition to the interests of Iceland. On-going regulatory violations are a stark contrast to national environ-mental values. With such historically negative policies and limited economic potential it’s reasonable to doubt whether Icelanders have ever questioned the viability and ethics of whaling as their government supports and facilitates the industry.
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