Development & Aid, Environment, Tierramerica

New Push to Get Whales Off the Table

REYKJAVIK, Aug 1 2011 (IPS) - A campaign directed at tourists visiting Iceland aims to show them that, contrary to what they are led to believe by some restaurants, whale meat is not a traditional dish enjoyed by most Icelanders.

Volunteers campaigning in Reykjavik. - Lowana Veal/IPS

Volunteers campaigning in Reykjavik. - Lowana Veal/IPS

Down by the old harbor in the Icelandic capital, a small group of volunteers in pale blue T-shirts can be seen handing out leaflets that say "Meet us don’t eat us".

Beneath the slogan is a picture of a whale, followed by "Whales are being killed to feed tourists. Don’t let your visit leave a bad taste in your mouth."

The leaflets are produced by the animal campaigning group International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW), but the umbrella group for Icelandic whale-watching companies, Ice Whale, is also involved in the campaign.

IFAW is conducting a campaign against eating whale meat because "we have noticed that in recent years, more and more restaurants in Iceland are putting whale meat on the menu, suggesting that it is being promoted to tourists," says IFAW’s UK publicity officer Clare Sterling.

However, a Gallup consumption and lifestyle survey last year showed that only 0.9 percent of Icelanders eat whale meat on a weekly basis, 36.8 percent eat it less than five times a year, and 52.6 percent never eat it.

Meanwhile, the IFAW webpage about the campaign says that "an estimated 40 percent of tourists are persuaded to eat whale meat."

The sale of whale meat in Iceland has increased over the last few years, partly because "tourists are being encouraged to eat whale meat, under the mistaken belief that it is a traditional dish enjoyed by most Icelanders."

In 2009, the University of Iceland, in conjunction with Icelandic whale-watching operators Elding, carried out a survey of almost 1,500 tourists on whale-watching trips in Iceland.

"They were asked how many of them had tried whale meat (19 percent) and how many would consider trying whale meat out of curiosity (86 percent)," said Sterling.

Currently "about 20 percent of whale meat goes directly to restaurants, the rest going to wholesalers," says Gunnar Bergmann Jonsson from the Association of Minke Whale Hunters (AMWH), which supplies whale meat to the Icelandic market.

In March, IFAW decided to ask permission from the airport authority, Isavia, to put up an advertisement with similar wording to the leaflet at Keflavik, the international airport for Iceland.

This was supposed to stand all summer, starting from the beginning of June. IFAW paid in advance for the hanging of the advertisement.

However, soon after the advertisement was put up, Isavia said that the organization was asked to change the wording or take it down. They said that they had never seen or agreed the final text, and had received some complaints.

One of these was from Jonsson, the manager of AMWH. "I thought it was inappropriate for the authorities that run the airport building to hang up propaganda like this, especially as it is a state-owned building," he told Tierramérica.

Eventually the advertisement was taken down and the organizers were refunded. But the leafletting continues, with volunteers spending two weeks at a time in Iceland before being replaced by others. The volunteers come through the Icelandic voluntary organization SEEDS.

"We talk to some of the people we leaflet," says Elena from Canada. "We generally get good responses from the tourists, who say they are not interested in eating whale meat, but we get many negative responses from Icelanders."

Leah, a volunteer from the U.S., added: "Since the campaign started, we have noticed that fewer restaurants are advertising whale meat outside their shops."

Iceland’s quota for catching minke whales (genus Balaenoptera) this year is 216. Halfway through the season, about 44 minke whales have been caught. "We never intended to catch the whole quota – we only catch for the market in question, which is Iceland," says Jonsson.

Sixty minke whales were caught in 2010, although the quota was much higher.

It seems that no fin whales (Balaenoptera physalus) will be caught in Iceland this summer, or at least not until August at the earliest. Kristjan Loftsson from Hvalur, the company that operates the larger whaling boats, blames the March earthquake and tsunami in Japan (the biggest importer of whale meat) for his decision, saying that the market there has crashed as people no longer go out to eat in restaurants.

But the decline in whale meat consumption appears to have started before the tsunami. According to a survey carried out in Japan in 2010 by IKAN, the Iruka (Dolphin) and Kujira (Whale) Action Network, in conjunction with journalist Juniko Sakuma, Japan had around 6,000 tons of unsold whale meat in storage, although whale meat had become cheaper and less whales had been caught by the Japanese.

"It is not true that the whale meat stock increased after the disaster," IKAN's Nanami Kurasawa told Tierramérica.

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