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ENVIRONMENT: Whaling Profitable but Bad for Iceland’s Image

Lowana Veal

REYKJAVIK, Apr 15 2010 (IPS) - Early April Greenpeace protestors in Rotterdam intercepted seven containers with 140 kg of fin whale meat from Iceland, destined for Japan. They said that the import of whale meat to the Netherlands is illegal, but Dutch authorities turn a blind eye on consignments destined elsewhere.

In a press release about the action, Greenpeace said: “The international trade in fin whales and other whales is banned under CITES – the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna. The Netherlands is one of the 175 signatories to this treaty. Japan and Iceland refuse to comply with CITES and continue to trade in whale meat.”

Kristjan Loftsson from the company Hvalur, which was exporting the meat, has to find another way of getting the meat to Japan as the original shipping company, NYK, refused to take the meat any further.

“But you don’t need to worry, we’ll find a way,” he said when IPS asked him if a solution had been found.

Very little fin whale meat was sold in 2009, though. Statistics in Iceland say that a whole 3 kg of whale meat was exported, worth ISK 5,442 (43 US dollars).

However, Einar K. Gudfinnsson, the former fisheries minister who announced the resumption of commercial whaling early last year, has predicted annual revenue of up to ISK 5 billion (39.6 million dollars) for the 150 fin whales and 100 minke whales that he said could be caught annually.

The news is interesting in the light of a new report on the advantages and disadvantages of whaling that the ministry for fisheries and agriculture commissioned from the University of Iceland’s Institute of Economic Studies.

After talking to officials from a number of government institutions and whaling interests, the authors concluded that whaling would be economically advantageous to Iceland.

In February, before the report was published, a quota of 200 minke whales and 200 fin whales was set for 2010.

Would it not have been better to wait for the whaling report before deciding on the whale quota? “The report has nothing to do with the decision on the whaling quota which was made by Gudfinnsson in January last year. The publication of the report was delayed from September till March and that was nothing we could change,” said Johann Gudmundsson, advisor to the fisheries minister.

Although many in the current ruling coalition are against commercial whaling, Iceland is currently bound by the regulation that Gudfinnsson set, but a bill has just been set before the parliamentary Althingi that would allow a revision of the law.

Minke whalers actually made an overall loss in 2009, although minke whale meat was sold on the domestic market. Initially the intention had been to sell 80 percent of the minke whale meat to Japan.

Why was it not sold to Japan? Gunnar Bergmann Jonsson from the Association of Minke Whale Hunters told IPS: “We will not be exporting any minke whale meat for the time being, but hope to do so in the future. We are still building our company up and to export all the whale meat immediately was simply too much to take on.”

Nevertheless, the report says that extra revenue would be provided for the minke whale industry if some of the meat is sold on the foreign market.

Hunting and processing 150 minke whales and 150 fin whales would provide 80-90 jobs on a yearly basis, say the authors of the report. In comparison, ten companies sell whale-watching tours; of these the four largest provide 120 jobs during the peak period and 40-50 outside of this.

The main benefit of whaling, though, would come from the fish that could be caught if not taken by whales. On a long-term basis, the populations of cod, capelin and haddock would increase and allow extra quotas for the fishing industry of 2,200 tonnes of cod, 4,900 tonnes of haddock and 13,800 tonnes of capelin, say the study authors.

These figures have been disputed, however. Hilmar Malmquist, curator of the Natural History Museum of Kopavogur, has long been critical of the science used by pro-whaling interests. “The report is badly written and lacks scientific credibility. It is highly pro-whaling and biased towards interests in the fishing and whaling sector, such as the Federation of Icelandic Fishing Vessel Owners,” he says.

“Regarding results on how whaling might increase economic returns of commercial fish catch, one of the basic assumptions in the report is a two-decade-old “multi-species model” provided by Iceland’s Marine Research Institute, which has been strongly criticised by the scientific community and rejected as a useful tool for assessing long-term interactions between species in the complex marine ecosystem,” he continued.

The biological multi-species model only includes three whale species, two fish species and one species of shrimp and is highly simplistic, according to Malmquist, “but they use this model to extrapolate data to estimate fish populations after 50 years. The report also considers only negative effects of fish consumption by whales and does not consider beneficial predation,” Malmquist points out.

Beneficial predation happens when whales eat fish that usually prey on cod and other commercial fish. The logic behind this argument is that if there are fewer whales around to eat the predatory fish, the predatory fish will eat more cod so the exploitable cod population will actually become smaller.

The last section of the report deals with the impact on tourism and Iceland’s image overseas. It acknowledges that this aspect should be researched further and if it appears that whaling will damage the nation’s credibility to outsiders, the decision should be reconsidered.

Greenpeace is trying its best to do this. “By exposing Iceland’s whale meat trade in Rotterdam, we hope to change Iceland’s position and end its unnecessary whale hunt”, they say in their press release.

The report also suggests that the whaling station itself might attract tourists like it did in its heyday. “But that was 20-30 years ago. They don’t consider that the attitude towards hunting whales might have changed over time,” says Malmquist.

On a slightly different note, Malmquist points out: “Authors of the report regard the big baleen whales as an Icelandic resource. Here, authors omit the fact that the big whale species are more or less all born outside the Icelandic economic zone, down south close to the equator in international waters. Therefore, international law applies to them and how they are treated.”

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