Biodiversity, Environment, Europe, Headlines

ICELAND: Whaling Puts Fish Sales at Risk

Lowana Veal

REYKJAVIK, Mar 24 2009 (IPS) - After promising that the decision made by the outgoing fisheries minister on commercial whaling would be reversed, the fisheries minister of Iceland's caretaker government, Steingrimur J. Sigfusson, discovered that the law would not allow him to revoke the decision, and so whaling of up to 100 minke whales and 150 fin whales can continue, at least for 2009.

But Sigfusson added that if major problems come up, such as not being able to sell the meat, the decision would be reconsidered.

One potential problem has already emerged. Within hours of Sigfusson's statement, Steingrimur Leifsson, director of the fish company Frostfiskur said that their company would be badly affected. The majority of their fish is sold to Waitrose, a high-class supermarket chain in the UK that is particularly aware of environmental issues and has high standards about where its food comes from.

"A few weeks ago, soon after the outgoing fisheries minister, Einar K. Gudfinnsson, made his decision about commercial whaling, we received a letter from Waitrose saying that they would stop buying fish from Iceland if commercial whaling goes ahead," says Leifsson.

"This is particularly bad for us, as we send out fresh cod and haddock daily to them, and get a good price for it. We have 130 people working for the company, and their jobs are at stake."

Iceland has hunted whales to some extent since 2003. Did Waitrose not complain at that time?

"Yes, they made some remarks about it. But the latest decision means whaling will take place on a much larger scale," says Leifsson. He added: "I consider that Gudfinnsson was committing terrorism when he made the commercial whaling decision."

Another company that is affected is the exporting company Danica Seafood, which exports fish from Icelandic companies to Waitrose. Jan Thomsen, managing director of Danica, told IPS: "We have been supplying fish to Waitrose for 10 years and have received a complaint from Waitrose about Icelandic whaling. We have told them that our suppliers are against the whaling decision, and that seems to have worked for the time being. We are also pressuring Icelandic government officials on the subject, which seems to be going well." Frostfiskur exports via Danica.

However, Sigurdur Sverrisson, information officer at the Federation of Icelandic Fishing Vessel Owners (FIFVO), has a different viewpoint. "The letter from Waitrose was misinterpreted. It says that they will 'potentially stop buying fish', nothing more."

Is it possible that different letters were sent to Frostfiskur and to the Icelandic government?

Jess Hughes, Press Officer for Waitrose, told IPS: "There was only one letter. Our specialist fish buyer wrote (to Iceland) to outline the close and long-term relationship between Waitrose and Iceland and to encourage the consideration of our customers' beliefs in the decision-making process regarding whaling in Iceland. As outlined in the letter, Waitrose and our customers are against whaling."

Nevertheless, according to Hughes, Waitrose still buys fish from Norway and the Faeroe Islands, which are whaling nations.

Protests have also come from Germany. Arthur Bjorgvin Bollason, news correspondent for the Icelandic National Broadcasting Service in Germany, told IPS: "I know that the embassy here in Berlin has received letters from environmental organisations, saying that they may organise a boycott of Icelandic products. Similar letters have also been sent to public officials in Iceland."

In the 1980s, German environmentalists organised a boycott of Icelandic goods when commercial whaling in Iceland was still happening. "As a result, Germany's Tengelmann supermarket chain stopped buying Icelandic products, which caused considerable damage in Iceland, not least to prawn suppliers. There were even cases where prawn companies went bankrupt because of the ban," says Bollason.

Asta Einarsdottir is a lawyer at the Ministry of Fisheries who is working on the whaling issue. She confirms that the ministry has received complaints from Waitrose, and also from Marks & Spencer. Asked whether the complaints and the prospect of a boycott of Icelandic products might be grounds to change the legislation yet again, she said that it was impossible to say anything at the moment.

"However, I am preparing new whaling legislation that should be put before the Althingi (parliament) before it dissolves, which might give more flexibility to the issue," she added. The current whaling legislation goesback to 1949.

Some overseas buyers had also expressed concern after Gudfinnsson decided to increase the cod quota for this year by 30,000 tonnes, from 130,000 tonnes. They were concerned that Icelanders would be exploiting their cod reserves and that the fishing would no longer be sustainable.

Leifsson says that a Waitrose official had come out to Iceland and visited the Marine Research Institute, where he had been reassured that the increased quota would not have a particularly adverse affect on the cod population. It just meant that the cod population would increase more slowly than expected.

"I don't think the extra quota will be used anyway, as fish sales have slowed and fish is basically only being caught to fulfil orders," says Sigurdur Sverrisson from FIFVO.

Whaling will probably start at the beginning of June.

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