Biodiversity, Environment, Europe, Headlines

ICELAND: That Whale of a Question Again

Lowana Veal

REYKJAVIK, Jan 19 2009 (IPS) - “Start whaling” proclaimed the full-page advertisement that appeared in Icelandic newspapers early January.

The advert was placed by Marine Exploitation, a consortium of municipalities, fishing associations and trade unions associated with fisheries that calls for the sensible exploitation of natural resources.

It calls on the Icelandic government to ensure that whaling in Iceland starts this summer, within the limits that the Marine Research Institute (MRI) has recommended for certain species.

“There are 350,000 cetaceans, large and small, in the ocean around Iceland,” states the advertisement. “Every year these eat about six million tonnes of biomass, two million tonnes of which is fish,” it continues.

Dolphins and porpoises are included under the “cetaceans” umbrella.

But where do these figures come from, and are they accurate?

Gisli Vikingsson, Head of Whale Research at the Marine Research Institute (MRI), says that the figure of 350,000 cetaceans is indeed accurate as it was the average total number for counts done between 1987 and 1995 of the 12 cetacean species that are found regularly around Iceland. In 1995, 62,000 of these were minke whales.

“The total figure is actually considered an underestimation, as the smaller cetaceans tend to be underestimated in counts that are based primarily on the large whales,” Vikingsson said.

In the last count for whale populations around Iceland in 2007, only a part of the area was surveyed due to bad weather conditions and sea ice, according to Vikingsson.

“The number of minke whales was only 10-15,000, which is much lower than in earlier counts. This is not considered a decrease, but rather a shift in distribution within the population area (which extends from East Greenland through Iceland to east of Jan Mayen). Nevertheless, we at the MRC changed our whaling recommendations for minke whales from 400 down to 100 because much of the area was not surveyed,” says Vikingsson.

Counting of a limited area was carried out last summer, and the figures seemed to reflect earlier totals prior to 2007. A new count will be carried out this summer, Vikingsson says. “Recommendations for a minke quota for 2009 will be given out in the next few months.”

“We want to take 200 minke whales and 150 fin whales, which are within the limits recommended by the MRI,” says Gunnar Bergmann Jónsson from the Association of Minke Whale Hunters (AMWH). Or were in 2008 at any rate.

The quota for minke whales in 2008 was 40, of which 39 were caught. No fin whales were caught last year.

Fin whales are caught by the company Hvalur (meaning “whale”) whereas fishermen from the AMWH catch minke whales from small boats.

The advert implies that cetaceans are eating fish which humans could otherwise catch. As Jonsson says, “About half of the diet of minke whales is composed of white fish, such as cod and haddock, while fin whales primarily eat planktonic krill – the main food of cod and haddock. Thus these whales are both eating from cod and haddock and, in the case of minke whales, actually eating cod and haddock that humans could otherwise catch.”

But Vikingsson raises questions about these figures.

“Obviously hunting of this magnitude will not have an immediate effect, either now or within a few years. But looking to the long term (decades), preliminary results indicate that hunting to this degree could have a considerable effect on the yield of fish populations (20 percent less long-term yield of the cod population), at least in reference to the population models that most scientists adhere to, including those from the IWC,” says Vikingsson.

“But great uncertainty reigned over these figures, not least in the calculations for minke whales,” he added.

Arni Finnsson from the Iceland Nature Conservation Association has a different viewpoint on the diet of whales. “Actually there is now good agreement amongst scientists that we just don’t know whether fewer or greater numbers of whales would mean more or less fish,” he told IPS. “In 2003, the IWC Scientific Committee agreed that for no system at present are we in the position to provide quantitative management advice on the impact of cetaceans on fisheries, or of fisheries on cetaceans.”

Is there a market for the whale meat? “There will not be a problem with selling the meat. In Japan the market is large enough for the sale of a lot more meat to be no problem. Eighty percent of the minke whale meat and all of the fin whale meat will go to Japan,” says Jonsson.

But Finnsson is not so sure. “Whale meat in Japan is a luxury product. It is a luxury product for generations that grew up after World War II and became used to whale meat which was cheap at that time,” he says. “The market in Japan has contracted and there are large stocks of whale meat in freezers. In addition, one could mention that the minke whale meat from Norway, which was transported by air from Iceland to Japan last May, is still in customs. It has not been sold. Therefore, to claim that there is a market for imported minke whale meat in Japan is, at best, premature.”

All of the Icelandic minke whale meat last year went to the domestic market.

In Norway in December a quota was given out for 885 minke whales for the coming summer, a decrease from the 1,052 minke whales that were authorised for catch the year before.

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