Biodiversity, Environment, Europe, Headlines

ICELAND: Whaling Move Rocks Government

Lowana Veal

REYKJAVIK, Feb 10 2009 (IPS) - Two weeks ago, a day after the government of Iceland fell, outgoing fisheries and agriculture minister Einar K. Gudfinnsson announced a quota for commercial whaling for up to 150 fin whales and 100 minke whales for the next five years.

Setting a catch limit for five years is common practice under the guidelines of the International Whaling Commission.

Gudfinnsson’s decision was an answer to full-page advertisements by whaling interests in two national papers. A few days after the decision, the same people advertised to thank him, saying that whaling would provide up to 300 jobs. With unemployment rising rapidly in Iceland, this figure was supposed to provide some form of rationale for the decision. Iceland has a population of just over 300,000.

There were, however, several snags in the whaling announcement. Most importantly, it is doubtful Gudfinsson had the authority to make such a decision after the government had fallen.

Iceland’s temporary new government, formed Feb. 1 by the Social Democratic Alliance (SDA) and the Left-Green Party (LGP), is against the move, and says it will revoke it.

But that too may not be easy. The minority government, in place until elections due Apr. 25, needs the support of the Progressive Party (PP) in the Althingi (Parliament). But new chair of the PP Sigmundur D. Gunnlaugsson has said his party members may not want a reversal of Gudfinnsson’s decision.

The Iceland Nature Conservation Association (INCA) has produced a set of 15 questions for MPs to consider. Issues raised include the cost of sending whale meat to Japan, net revenue, and whether this can pay the wages of 200-300 whalers.

Revocation of the decision could lead to claims of damages from the state. But Atli Gislason, Left-Green MP and lawyer, told IPS: “The new Prime Minister, (SDA) Johanna Sigurdardottir, immediately described the decision of the then fisheries minister as illegal. The decision should have been laid before the cabinet where more than one person has authority.”

He added: “These are all issues that may mean that whalers cannot have justifiable expectations and apply for damages. What must also be looked at is whether they will have suffered damages if the decision is revoked. They must prove this, which could prove particularly difficult for them.”

New fisheries minister (Left-Green) Steingrimur J. Sigfusson announced on his first day in office that his first task will be to discuss his predecessor’s controversial decision with officials in the ministry, in the hope of getting it overturned.

At a meeting held last week in the fishing town Akranes, where facilities for processing whale meat would be set up, Sigfusson was besieged by locals and trade union representatives saying that whaling would create jobs in the town that they cannot afford to be without.

But Sigfusson was resolute, saying he would weigh advantages and disadvantages for the whaling and the tourist industry. He expects to take a call by next week.

Whale-watching enterprises and the Icelandic Travel Industry Association have opposed the whaling move.

Criticism has come from overseas as well. Sinikka Bohlin, Swedish MP and president of the Nordic Council, was in Iceland for meetings at the time the decision was announced. In a press release, she said: “Hunting whales is controversial both in the Nordic countries and around the world. It is unfortunate that the Icelandic government has chosen to sign such a controversial agreement in the midst of the current financial and governmental crisis. This type of issue should not be raised during a time of such political chaos.”

The SDA wants Iceland to move towards EU membership. But since the EU holds an anti-whaling position, commercial whaling will prove an obstacle should Iceland want to join the Union.

If whaling goes ahead, the first whales will not be caught until May.

In an article in the newspaper Frettabladid, whalers Kristjan Loftsson and Gunnar B. Jonsson said they were pleased with a quota for five years because it would ensure proper marketing of Icelandic whale meat in Japan. “It always works better if people know the product will keep coming,” Loftsson told IPS.

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