Biodiversity, Environment, Europe, Headlines

ENVIRONMENT: Whaling in Iceland Faces Uncertain Future

Lowana Veal

REYKJAVIK, Jun 19 2007 (IPS) - No whales have been caught under Iceland’s commercial whaling programme since October last year, when whaling stopped for the year. Over a two-week period beginning in late September, seven fin whales and two minke whales were hunted, out of a quota of nine fin whales and 30 minke whales for the period up to Sept. 1.

However, 26 minke whales have been caught since April under the Marine Research Institute’s (MRI) scientific whaling programme. “Whalers are working for us at the moment, and they will only begin catching whales commercially after our programme is finished, which should be within the next two weeks,” said Droplaug Olafsdottir from the Marine Research Institute. Thirteen minke whales remain to be caught as part of the MRI programme.

Gunnar Berg Jonsson, from the Association of Minke Whale Hunters, confirmed this. “We will stop working with the MRI on Jun. 21, although one of our boats will be used to catch five whales for their research in September. We expect to start hunting whales commercially from the beginning of July, although it is not clear whether the whole quota will be used. If a quota for the following fishing year is given out, we will continue catching minke whales until well into October,” he said.

But the fate of the fin whales is still unclear. It mainly hinges on whether the meat can be sold, which in turn depends on the results of chemical analysis of the meat for contaminants. This was supposed to take only two to three months, but not all of the results have come back.

“A buyer for the meat is available, once all the results are back,” said Kristjan Loftsson from the Hvalur whaling company which hunts fin whales.

Fisheries minister Einar K. Gudfinnsson says he is reluctant to make a decision on further whaling until a buyer for the meat is confirmed. And although Loftsson is confident about finding a buyer, many others are sceptical.

Loftsson originally told IPS that he did not believe whaling would begin before July. But he also said: “It’s not worth our while catching just two fin whales. We need an extra quota. If we don’t get it, we won’t continue.”

Gudfinsson faces opposition from some of the other members of the new ruling coalition, especially Environment Minister Thorun Sveinbjarnardottir who has consistently opposed whaling. Three ministers in the previous coalition had also expressed doubts about the decision, saying that it gave Iceland a bad image.

Iceland’s commercial whaling programme has created a lot of attention, not to mention controversy, since it got underway. Initially, various ministries were bombarded by emails from protesters who deplored Iceland’s decision. Twenty-five countries, including 15 European countries and several from Latin America, sent official complaints to Iceland. And various cultural and business ventures were cancelled.

Many people in the tourist industry, including travel companies abroad, felt that there would be a drop in the number of tourists coming to Iceland as would-be travellers could be put off by Iceland’s whaling activities.

Discover the World (DTW) was one such company. They placed a statement on their website saying that they disagreed with Iceland’s decision to restart commercial whaling.

“However, we have made it clear that the Icelandic travel industry is also very much against whaling and that they are the main force against whaling in Iceland. Therefore by supporting the travel industry you are not supporting whaling. We have found that this view has been widely accepted and that accordingly people are generally booking holidays there without any problem,” said Clive Stacey, managing director of DTW, when asked about the issue.

In fact, there has been an increase in the number of tourists coming to Iceland this year, as has also been the case for the last few years. But this should not be surprising, as flights are now available from far more places than before, and at cheaper prices too.

Environmental groups also reacted to Iceland’s commercial whaling. Many of the emails received by the authorities were instigated by environmental groups such as Greenpeace, Sea Shepherd and the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW). Some said they would organise boycotts of products from Iceland. Icelandic outreach companies in the UK are keenly aware of opposition there and have said that the country should stop whaling.

The U.S.-based Sea Shepherd sent its boat Farley Mowat to Iceland in a venture they are calling Operation Ragnarok. Sea Shepherd is notorious in Iceland for sinking half of the country’s whaling fleet in 1986. The group is protesting both commercial and scientific whaling.

Although Sea Shepherd is no longer as radical as it was in 1986, Gudfinnsson said in a newspaper interview that the activists would be greeted “like any other terrorists”.

A poll in February, carried out for IFAW and the Iceland Nature Conservation Association, showed that 40 percent of Icelanders were opposed to the resumption of commercial whaling.

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