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Iceland whaling review: how much longer can they front it out?

In what can only be regarded as a triumph of “La, la, la, not listening, there’s no problem” politics, the Icelandic Foreign Ministry has finally released its long awaited report into that country’s whaling activities.  

Myth 1: “No significant damage to Iceland’s interests”

Commissioned back in September 2014 at the request of a cross-party group of MPs,  the report blithely claims that the damage done by whaling in terms of adversely impacting Iceland’s political relations with other countries is “limited” and confidently concludes that “thus far, there has been no significant short-term or long-term damage to Iceland’s interests” .

Really?  I suspect that a few Opposition MPs beg to differ and indeed this statement contradicts the flurry of angry debate on this issue within the Icelandic parliament in recent months.  For example, last summer, in the first acknowledgement of its kind from an Icelandic government official for many years, Iceland’s Foreign Minister, Gunnar Bragi Sveinsson indicated that Iceland should consider reducing its whaling operations in light of international criticism, including diplomatic sanctions from the US and threats of commercial sanctions if the hunts continue, saying “We here at the Ministry for Foreign Affairs have noticed first-hand how Iceland is sometimes looked down upon because of [our continued whaling]. Our partnership with the U.S. is very good on the whole, although whaling stands in the way of certain things.” 

Only weeks later, in October, Sveinsson was once more asked to look into the wider diplomatic and economic damage caused by the country’s whaling industry. This time, Opposition MPs – mindful of US president, Barack Obama’s stated intention to put more diplomatic pressure on Iceland over its decision to resume commercial whaling – asked what impact the whaling has had on relations between the US and Iceland, and why no senior US government official has visited Iceland since Condoleezza Rice came to the country back in 2008?  They reminded fellow MPs that in 2014, Iceland had been left off the guest list for an international Oceans conference organized by the US State Department. The reasons given at the time were Iceland’s commercial whaling and export of whale products. 

Myth 2: “Whaling in Iceland is sustainable”

Adopting a strongly defensive tone throughout, the report restates the traditional Icelandic stance that its whaling and trade are legal and in line with its international commitments. This of course is untrue: Iceland kills whales for commercial purposes in defiance of an international ban on commercial whaling and trades only with those other nations (Japan and Norway) which similarly exploit a loophole in CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species) regulations.

Also untrue is the report’s contention that “there can be no doubt that whaling in Iceland is sustainable and that the scientific basis for such is strong.” In fact, there is insufficient credible data on the abundance and distribution of fin whales and minke whales in Icelandic waters to be able to make such a statement.  A dramatic decline in minke whale numbers in recent years, for example, has not been satisfactorily explained and therefore, the precautionary principle should apply and no further quotas issued.

Report admits that whaling has created “challenges” for Iceland’s seafood export industry and its whale watch industry

It is good to see, however, an acknowledgement that public information and awareness campaigns mounted by organisations such as WDC, have presented some ‘challenges’ to Iceland’s seafood export industry and its overseas partners.  An obvious example would be our long-term campaign to educate consumers and retailers about the links between Icelandic seafood giant, HB Grandi and fin whaling, via HB Grandi’s Chair, Kristjan Loftsson. The report states: “regarding exports… one must not ignore the fact that public opinion in both North America and the EU has been against whaling and some companies have chosen to reduce the direct marketing of Icelandic products … and there are other companies that have indicated that they will boycott Icelandic products. Whaling has repeatedly come up in discussions with foreign buyers and it is negatively colouring [sales].”

It complains too, about efforts by WDC and others to ban the movement of whale meat and products “even causing transit bans through some European ports”.

US reaction to fin whaling announcement

The report’s release comes soon after the very welcome announcement that there will be no fin whaling this season.  

The US Ambassador to Iceland welcomed the news as a “positive development” and went on to say that Iceland “now has the chance to show itself as a leader in issues of marine conservation by opposing commercial whaling and trade in whale products.” The Ambassador also praised the “economic, cultural and social benefits of whale watching” as an alternative to whale hunting. 

However, rather than accepting the ‘olive branch’ of encouragement to further develop whale watching, as proffered by the US (and let’s face it, whale watching as an industry is infinitely more profitable than whaling, and one that has long suffered due to whaling activities), Iceland’s Fisheries Minister, Sigurdur Ingi Johannsson, responded only that it is “untimely” to comment on ending whaling and added that he is waiting for advice from Iceland’s Marine Research Institute, HAFRO, as to what would constitute sustainable quotes for fin and minke whales. 

It is a long report, but beyond the accusations and defensive rhetoric, the abiding impression is of an industry trying to convince itself that it is still viable: stubbornly clinging on to an activity that has long since had its day and is now an albatross around its country’s neck.