“Whaling can help rebuild our economy” has been the theme of a high-profile ad campaign in the Icelandic media in recent weeks.
Running across TV, radio and newspapers, it promises that the whaling industry can create up to 300 new jobs – a significant number in a country of 319,000 inhabitants struggling with rising unemployment, a worthless currency and a collapsed banking system.
The campaign has also been heavy on nationalistic imagery, showing images of the Icelandic flag juxtaposed with historical pictures of whalers and whaling ships. The message resonates strongly in a nation that used to survive on fishing and farming.
The campaign by pro-whaling advocates has followed Iceland’s increased its official whaling quota on 26 January more than sixfold. In 2009, local whalers will be able to hunt 100 minke whales and 150 fin whales in 2009, up from 38 minke whales and no fin whales in 2008.
The decision to increase the quota was taken by the outgoing government of PM Geir Haarde, in its final day in office. The new Icelandic fisheries minister, Steingrimur Sigfusson, has been trying to overturn it ever since, but has not been able to do so. “[My predecessor] took a hasty and vague decision, but it is valid and binding,” he explains. “Our lawyers tell us we do not have sufficient legal basis to overturn it.”
So instead, Sigfusson is conducting a review of the country’s whaling policy as a whole. “We will review the whole process, including the way the way the licenses are given or the way whalers are operating,” says the minister. “We will also look into establishing safe havens, areas where whalers will not be allowed in.”
“This will be a warning for the whalers that they cannot expect the same treatment that they received in the past,” he states.
But those who expect the leader of a green party – Sigfusson is the leader of the Left-Greens – to ban all forms of whaling will be in for a surprise. “We’re not principally against whaling, but against commercial whaling on a big scale,” says Sigfusson. “We don’t have a problem with small-scale, sustainable coastal whaling for our own consumption.”
Iceland resumed commercial whaling in 2006, despite an international moratorium put in place in 1986 to protect the species from extinction.
“The quota increase can help us create between 200 and 300 jobs,” says Fridrik Arngrimsson from the association of fishing vessels’ owners. “It will also help protect our fisheries because whales eat fish that we could harvest.”
“Whales are not an endangered species. We have an abundance of whales in our waters, up to 400,000 of all types. They are a natural resource like any other and we have the right to use it,” he says.
Arngrimsson echoes the view of most people in Iceland. According to a poll published on 4 February, over 67% of Icelanders are either “very” or “rather supportive” of commercial whaling, with only 19.7% opposed to the practice.
But can whaling really help Iceland out of its economic woes? Right now it’s a tiny industry, employing “tens of people” according to the ministry of fisheries. And only three ships conduct minke whale hunting at the moment, with only two other ships fitted to conduct fin whale hunting.
Anti-whaling campaigners point out as well that whaling, far from helping Iceland get out of its economic crisis, could make it more difficult. “It will harm its thriving whale-watching industry and potentially damage its fishing exports to countries that are opposed to whaling,” says Martin Norman from Greenpeace.
Around 115,000 tourists went whale-watching in Iceland in 2008, the vast majority of them foreigners. The sector directly employs an estimated 180-210 people. “Whale watching is the largest single tourism activity in the country,” says Heimir Hardarson, marketing manager of North Sailing, a whale-watching operator in Husavik, northern Iceland.
Since Iceland resumed whaling there have been fewer minke whales in the waters outside Husavik, says Hardarson. “It is difficult to know whether it’s because of the whaling or [if] it’s because of other reasons,” he explains. “But before whaling resumed, we would see minke whales about 95% of every time we would go out on tours. Now it’s below 50%. On the other hand, we see more humpback and blue whales.”
Another problem is that whalers operate in the same area as tourist ships. “If they hunt the whales that are easily approachable, which are the ones they look for, it will be more difficult for us to show whales to visitors,” she says.
Gretarsdottir is worried that the increased quota will lead to less visitors coming to Iceland. “We’re concerned that tourists, especially those from the UK and Germany where whaling is a big issue, will stop coming here.”
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