Iceland resumes whaling

Feature story - 14 August, 2003
Iceland announced a few days ago the resumption of its "Scientific Whaling" programme. We have turned our flagship "Rainbow Warrior" around to do something about it.

Minke whale, (Balaenoptera acutorostrata), Great Barrier Reef, Australia.

The Rainbow Warrior first sailed against Icelandic whaling on her maiden voyage, in 1978. We are now returning to support local groups who also fear the announcement by Iceland's Ministry of Fisheries is a first step towards a resumption of commercial whaling. In fact, the Ministry of Fisheries website openly declares that Iceland wants to resume commercial whaling in 2006.

The Rainbow Warrior was heading toward Greece when Iceland announced that a hunt for minke whales this year. She'll arrive in Icelandic waters in two weeks time.

Leipold said:

"Whaling is part of Iceland's past, and must remain so. Some people of Iceland will regret this because whaling was so much a part of their life. Whilst we don't expect to change everyone's minds, Greenpeace hopes that we are able to give many Icelanders the confidence to say no to whaling - forever. A clear message must go to the Icelandic government - globally, as well as directly from the people of Iceland - that this will not be tolerated. Iceland can make more money from whale watching than whale killing and should be doing all it can to protect those whales in its seas."

No science justifies killing whales

Does a resumption of "scientific whaling" mean we can expect better data about the new threats to whales from climate change and shifting ocean currents? Will it mean a better understanding of why minke whales in the North Atlantic are contaminated with mercury? Will it mean new data to test the recent evidence that original whale populations have been vastly underestimated?

Nope. All it will mean is more dead whales.

"No science justifies the killing of whales. This is simply an underhand attempt by the Icelandic government to resume commercial whaling." said Gerd Leipold.

Commercial whaling by the back door

Commercial whaling was banned by the International Whaling Commission (IWC) in 1982, but a loophole allowing the killing of whales for research purposes has been exploited by several countries as a cover story for their commercial whaling programmes.

While denying that they have a commercial interest in hunting whales, the Icelandic Fisheries Ministry all but apologises at its website for the fact that it is "obliged" to sell the products of its scientific whaling programme under IWC regulations and international law. Iceland hasn't always been so worried about international law: they have conducted illegal hunts in the past, but have chosen to put a more respectable adverb on their activities, in preparation for a return to full-scale commercial whaling in 2006. They're under internal pressure to do so: the Icelandic Tourist Association demanded that the government not undertake any whaling programme unless it's legal, and Iceland's recent rejoining of the IWC appears to be part of a strategy to silence critics at home.

Excuses, excuses

And as Icelandic Ambassador Helgi Ágústsson puts it in his automated response to a Greenpeace Cyberaction: "The annual consumption of fish, krill and other biomass by whales in this region [Iceland's 200 mile economic zone] has been estimated around 6 million metric tons, several times the total Icelandic fishery landings of 1.5 to 2.0 million metric tons."

So it's all about fish, and how whales are eating more than their share?

Hang about. Have a look at that figure: the Fisheries Minister has lumped "Krill and other biomass" into the tonnage consumed, neither of which are particularly sought-after delicacies for the Icelandic dinner plate or export market. If you read carefully through the materials presented by Iceland, you might raise the question of exactly how many fish the whales are consuming.

And that, says Iceland, is exactly why they need to kill whales: to study how much fish they are eating.

Unecessary, irrelevant science

But the IWC's Science Committee failed to approve the Icelandic "scientific programme" when it was submitted to their recent meeting. And US Commission delegate Rolland Schmitten said the plan was "not relevant science; it's not necessary."

There are plenty of non-lethal means of studying whale interactions with the ocean food chain, and according to the BBC, Australian scientists have perfected a new humane way of assessing fish consumption. They sample whale poop instead of popping whales with harpoons and slicing open their stomachs.

According to the study's principle scientist, Nick Gales, "We will be telling the International Whaling Commission that this is a robust, non-lethal method for studying whales."

"It's going to provide some real information to put into food web models. If it points out that whales are competing for fish stocks, then we'll have to deal with that."

What can we do?

You can help concerned Icelanders stop the Iceland's Fisheries Department from taking a foolish step. If the Fisheries bureaucrats are worried about Iceland's "long term prosperity," they really ought to look at how commercial whaling will damage their economy.

Iceland has been an increasingly popular tourist magnet, and a burgeoning Whale watching industry has taken hold. More than 277,000 people visited Iceland in 2001. That's almost more than the entire population of the island. It's estimated that in that year, one third of those visitors went whale-watching. According to ENN, a dozen firms have sprung up in Iceland over the past decade, generating around US$8.5 million in revenue in 2001. Commercial whaling brought in US$3 million to US$4 million annually between 1986 and 1989, when commercial hunts were stopped.

The Icelandic Tourist Association voted in April of this year to strengthen its stand against whaling. One whale-watching village hung its flag at half mast when the Fisheries Ministry made its unpopular announcement.

And now, the Voice of America reports that the US Government has expressed "extreme disappointment" at Iceland's "unnecessary" lethal research. The US will review options for trade sanctions against Iceland under the Pelly Amendment, which mandates that the US State Department take action against countries which are undermining international agreements to protect endangered species.

Somebody higher up in the Icelandic government ought to be running a cost calculation of the relative value of a renewed whaling industry against lost tourism revenues, trade sanctions, possible fishery or tourist boycotts, snubs by trendy British clubbers who have been frequenting Iceland's shores lately, and a redirection of tourist dollars away from Icelandic whale watching to other, whale-friendlier shores.

You can help Iceland do the right thing. Tell Icelandic officials to stop whaling now.

In reply to your letter you will most likely receive an auto reply trying to portray the Icelandic position in a 'fair and balanced' way. Refer back to this article and the references above to see the real reasons why Iceland is resuming whaling.