Changing minds in Iceland

Feature story - 4 December, 2003
According to a new Gallup poll, 48 percent of the Icelandic public thinks the existence of groups like Greenpeace is "rather important to very important" -- a marked shift from past antagonism against Greenpeace for its anti-whaling policies.

Whale watching or whale hunting?

Frode Pleym, our campaigner who toured Iceland in September aboard our flagship, Rainbow Warrior, says this result is very encouraging. "Half the population is open to Greenpeace and our work." In the course of the visit in September, the ship's crew spoke to thousands of Icelanders and found themselves challenging a number of misconceptions.

"Some had no idea we worked on anything except Icelandic whaling, many confused us with other groups which have sunk whaling ships in the past. Few were aware that we had worked side by side with Iceland for stronger environmental protection in many international fora."

Arni Finnsson, Chairman of Iceland Nature Conservation Association, added "This strongly suggests that Icelanders do appreciate Greenpeace work on protecting the environment and it will probably elevate the debate on environmental issues in Iceland. Addressing climate change and marine pollution are areas of mutual concern for Greenpeace and Iceland."

We surprised many in Iceland by not taking a traditional approach to the government's decision to kill 38 Minke whales as a precursor to a new commercial hunt. Instead of putting boats in front of harpoons, we made our case direct to the Icelandic people and our own supporters to demonstrate that whales are worth more to Iceland alive than dead, and to try to communicate our reasons for opposing whaling in a less polarizing manner.

It is estimated that about a dozen whale watching companies have been started in Iceland in the last ten years, generating US$8.5 million in 2001. Commercial whaling generated US$3-4 million between 1986 and 1989, when commercial hunts were stopped. An Icelandic flag in one whale-watching town was flown at half-mast when the Icelandic government announced the renewal of whaling.

Among other domestic opponents to a new whaling program is Iceland's tourist industry. The Prime Minister of Iceland recently acknowledged that many people in Iceland who make their livings from tourist revenue are worried about the impact of whaling. "In marketing terms, it's a ten-year step backward" said one Icelandic public relations manager.

Many Icelanders remember the massive boycotts of Icelandic fish which drove the government to abandon whaling more than a decade ago.

We have taken a different tack for now, and made an offer to the Icelandic government to promote Iceland as a nature tourism destination if the decision to recommence whaling is reversed. More than 13,000 people have pledged so far to visit Iceland if the government ends plans to renew hunting, representing a potential income of up to US$2 million. Over the next several months, we are aiming to generate tens of thousands more pledges for a total potential tourist value of US$15 million.

Thirty six Minke whales were caught this autumn in Iceland's so-called scientific whaling programme. The government plan to expand the hunt to include sei and fin whales, perhaps as early as 2004.

But with help from our supporters, we'll be returning to Iceland next year with a US$15 million incentive for the Icelandic government to give up the whale hunt. It's a small price to pay for an end to Icelandic whaling.

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"I would seriously consider taking a vacation in Iceland if the government of Iceland stopped whaling.

I would be willing to receive an email about the options available for Icelandic tourism, an email that would be sent to me if the Government of Iceland ends its whaling program."

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