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Boundary changes: too little to save whale watching in Faxafloi Bay?


In what may be regarded as only a minor victory for the whales and for the local whale watching industry, Iceland’s Ministry of Industry and Innovation has slightly extended the no-whaling zone in Faxafloi Bay. Here, just outside the capital Reyjavik, minke whales are targeted by whale watch boats and whalers alike. On May 9th, the first minke whale was killed in an area which, at the time, lay just outside the protected zone, but a fortnight later, lay within the expanded boundaries of the no-whaling zone.

The majority of the review committee expressed the belief that, as whale watching has become increasingly important to the Icelandic economy, it was necessary to create a framework that would be acceptable to both industries.  However, the Minister decided to increased the sanctuary area by less than his Committee had recommended, leaving the local whale watch community with the feeling that this small expansion was no more than a sop to their industry and will not greatly assist their operations.

The new boundary runs from Garoskagavita north to Skogarnesibut the whale sanctuary in Skjalfandi will remain unchanged and both WDC and the local whale watch operators are highly disappointed that the sanctuary doesn’t cover the whole of Faxafloi bay. The area west of Garoskagi and Reykjanes is also an area of concern. 

Naturally, suspicions have been raised that lobbying by whaling interests may have influenced the final decision on the size of the sanctuary and certainly the announcement comes only days after the release of a report ostensibly comparing whaling with whale watching. This report was in fact highly biased and presented misleading statistics in a bid to bolster the economic value of whaling versus whale watching. For example, instead of a straightforward comparison between revenues deriving from minke whaling and whale watching since Iceland resumed commercial whaling in 2006/2007, the report artificially boosts whaling revenues by also including profits from fin whaling and even counts revenues dating back to 1988! Clearly this isn’t comparing apples with apples.

Maria Bjork Gunnarsdottir, Marketing Manager of Elding Whale Watching, has done her own comparisons. The report estimates the  value of minke whaling since 2007 to be 450 million ISK (roughly £2.4 million).  If that figure is correct, Maria realised that something didn’t add up.  In that same period, over three quarters of a million people went whale watching across Iceland and even if we just take figures for Faxafloi Bay, the key area of contention, we have 424,400 passengers in that period, generating revenues of around 2,631 million ISK (roughly £14.1 million).  Thus in that time-frame, whale watching in Faxafloi Bay has proved almost six times more profitable than minke whaling.

Maria commented: “I think that the Icelandic people really need to start asking themselves whether they are willing to jeopardize whale watching in Faxaflói bay. The quality of the tours has been going down in recent years and we have seen less and less of so-called “observers”, the curious minke whales that check out our boats. It doesn’t take a genius to realize that these are the easiest targets for the whalers.  We fear that if this development continues, caused by whaling or not, it will bring an end to whale watching in its current form in Faxaflói bay.”

Happily, Maria’s concern that whaling activities risk killing off whale watch businesses as well as whales – despite the vastly superior revenues generated by her industry – is echoed by the Icelandic Tourism Association (SAF) which recently issued a statement declaring that:

“It is clear that whale watching delivers more to the economy than whaling will ever do. SAF points out that the only way to sustainably use whale stocks in Iceland is to show them to foreign and domestic tourists in a responsible manner, that is to say that whales are worth more alive than dead. ….Whaling has fallen out of favour and is completely opposed by our major trading partners (foreign travel agents and wholesalers) [and] will inevitably damage the country’s reputation and the negative publicity associated with it will have unforeseen consequences.”

WDC heartily agrees. (RUV report)