Iceland: Killing whales makes no economic sense

Feature story - February 3, 2009
Killing whales to save the economy? It sounds like a terrible idea. Last week, the Icelandic government resigned, following widespread protests over its handling of the financial crisis. On his way out the door, outgoing Fisheries Minister Einar Gudfinnsson suddenly announced a massive increase in Iceland's whaling quota - up to an annual quota of 100 minke whales and 150 fin whales.

Flags promoting whale watching, flying in front of the crow's nests of old whaling ships laid-up in Reykjavik harbour. These whaling ships were taken out of service in 1989.

This bizarre move caused uproar in Iceland and around the world - at home, the tourism and whale watching industries joined members of the new interim government in condemning the quota increase. Mr Gudfinnsson had clearly bowed to recent pressure and claims from Icelandic whalers that whaling could help to pull the country's finances out the doldrums. But why did he do it when going out of office?

Shameless stunt

"The outgoing Icelandic government's whaling quota increase is a shameless stunt that has nothing to do with use of natural resources, and everything to do with politics," said Greenpeace International Whales Campaign coordinator Sara Holden. "Greenpeace joins the Icelandic tourism industry in urging that the new interim government reverses the quota increase and instead focuses on real solutions that promote the beauty of Iceland's environment - such as tourism and whale watching."

This new pressure from the whaling industry started on 9 January, when Icelandic newspapers Frettabladid and Morgunbladid ran a large advertisement headlined 'Let's resume whaling'. The advertisement argued that Iceland could dig itself out of its current financial woes through the hunting of whales. A few news stories followed, with members of the whaling lobby quoting claims of an open market for whale meat in Japan, and good prices being paid, following the recent export of whale meat from Iceland and Norway to Japan. The whaling lobby claims both significant export income and jobs would be created.

Plain facts

These claims and assumptions are clearly incorrect, so Greenpeace International Executive Director Gerd Leipold has now written to members of Iceland's new interim government - Prime Minister Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir, and the Ministers Steingrímur J. Sigfússon (finance, fisheries and agriculture), Össur Skarphéðinsson (foreign affairs, industry, energy and tourism) and Kolbrún Halldórsdóttir (environment) - detailing in plain facts what exactly is wrong with the idea of increasing whaling activity and to suggest that there's another, much better way for whales to help the Icelandic economy.

Gerd's letter contains some incontrovertible facts:

  • The market for whale meat in Japan is weak, with over 3,000 tonnes of minke whale meat currently in frozen storage. The amount increases and decreases during the year but has not dropped below 2300 tonnes for five years. One of Japan's leading newspapers, Asahi Shimbun, reported on 13 November last year that Japan's 'research' operation in the Antarctic was cutting its planned take from 935 minkes to 700 because of the low demand. 
  • The minke meat imported from Norway, which accompanied the exported Icelandic fin whale meat, as of January 2009 has still not cleared customs. Part of the fin whale shipment remains unsold, seven months after it was air-freighted to Japan.
  • As well as minke whales, Japan produces meat from Sei whales caught in the North Pacific and from fin whales caught in the Antarctic. The catch of Sei whales in 2008 was 50, and much of the meat remains unsold. The quota of fin whales for this year's hunt in the Antarctic is 50.
  • Most whales caught by Japan in the North Pacific and all whales caught in the Antarctic are processed on board one factory ship, the Nisshin Maru. The company which operates the factory ship is in charge of marketing all whale meat from these operations and so controls the market. This company will not welcome competition from Iceland or Norway given that the market is already saturated and produce is hard to sell. The whaling company's first priority is to sell its own product - it is clearly unable to do so, as the backlog and the scaling back of this year's catch demonstrate.
  • Whale imports are considered by the Japanese authorities on a case-by-case basis. Although one shipment from Iceland has been authorised this does not mean that future shipments will be accepted.

Whale watching, not whaling

Whaling does not and will not benefit Iceland or the Icelandic economy. In fact, whaling has a negative affect on the Iceland brand and the general credibility of Iceland's image as a responsible country that upholds sustainable management of natural resources.

Gerd's letter urged the Icelandic government to keep two points in mind:

  • Even a small increase in tourists going to Iceland for whale watching will create and secure more jobs and more money than whaling. Last year about 115,000 people went whale watching in Iceland. Over 20 per cent of these stated whale watching as an important reason for coming to Iceland, spending millions of US dollars in revenue in the process. A further 115,000 people have signed a pledge stating that they will consider visiting Iceland if Iceland stops whaling.
  • Tourism in general and whale watching in particular promote the beauty of Iceland's environment, and are worth far more to the Icelandic economy than whaling is or ever can be. The image of Iceland as an industrial whaling nation, in the business of catching whales and shipping them around the world for consumption as luxury goods, will certainly not help promote tourism or Iceland's image internationally.

Whaling belongs in the past.

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