Astute readers of Meihoukai in Wanderland may note that thus far I’ve had nothing but gushing praise for everything Icelandic (aside, I suppose, from the prices). It’s true, I love almost everything about this tiny island nation.
However, Iceland is embroiled in an international debate over an issue that I feel so passionately about that I feel myself forming a disclaimer every time I start to spout off on the otherwise perfection that is Iceland.
It’s an issue that has inspired more than twenty–five international leaders to make personal pleas to the Icelandic Prime Minister, an issue that has incited tourism boycotts, motivated protests and made Iceland a frequent leper of the international community.
That issue is whaling.
Of course, it’s about much more than whaling. It’s about a country’s right to do as it chooses, an international community’s prerogative to protect one of the world’s most majestic creatures, and the weighted values of history, autonomy, environment, and economy.
Surprisingly, it’s not Icelanders who are eating the harvested whale meat. So who is consuming the thousands of tons of meat from slaughtered whales in Iceland each year? The answer may come as a surprise.
From a comedy show at Harpa
A Bit of Background
Whaling in the North Atlantic dates back at least to the 12th century, when records show that whales were sometimes hunted with spears for their blubber. By the late 1800’s, commercial whaling as we know it today was introduced to Iceland by the Norwegians. The industry was unstable in terms of both demand and supply of resources, and Iceland self-imposed a number of bans throughout the early 1900’s (). However, commercial whaling in Iceland was full steam ahead in 1986, the year a world-wide moratorium on whaling was voted in by the International Whaling Commission (IWC), the global intergovernmental body charged with the conservation of whales and the management of whaling.
The years 1986 through 1989 were fraught with debates over the merits of “scientific whaling,” protests from allied countries, and boycotts of Icelandic fish from international supermarket chains and restaurant brands like Wendy’s. During those years the majority of whale meat spoiled in warehouses or was used as feed on fur farms (). With the whaling industry providing little economic viability, Iceland chose to ban whaling in 1989. Yet In 2003, Iceland reintroduced “scientific whaling” to much protest from both the international community and local tourism businesses, who feared a global boycott on travel to Iceland (, ). In 2007, Iceland joined Norway and Japan as the rogue violators of the IWC when they reintroduced commercial whaling, despite more than 25 nations delivering a formal diplomatic protest.
The controversy has not quieted. Today, Icelandic regulations allow for the hunt of both the minke whale and the fin whale, the latter an endangered species. The country has been accused of illegally exporting whale meal to Denmark and Latvia, and has killed hundreds of endangered whales in the process.
From Little Hvalasafnid – The Small Whale Museum in Hvalfjörður
In Defense of Whaling
For many Icelanders, the question of “Do you support whaling?” has become synonymous with “Do you support Iceland?” Many claim there are nationalistic and historical reasons for keeping whaling alive. An interesting argument considering Norwegians introduced and operated early whaling stations in Iceland (). In modern times, commercial whaling has been conducted by a single family, today helmed by Kristján Loftsson – making whaling a family business rather than a national one ().
Other defenders of the whaling industry cite the comparison to chicken and cow meat, asking why the international community is not up in arms about the consumptions of those animals. Occasionally, scientific claims – disregarded by the majority of the scientific community — are presented claiming that whales, rather than human overfishing, are the reason for depleted fish stocks. One pro-whaling argument is that whaling creates jobs – clearly an effective one, considering Iceland’s return to commercial whaling coincided with one of the most devastating financial crashes in Europe.
When I passed through Hvalfjörður on my road trip through Iceland, I was eager to see Iceland’s main whaling station for myself. I don’t know what I was expecting – a bloody mega warehouse surrounded by Greenpeace protestors? – but whatever it was, I didn’t find it here. The only evidence of this bay’s significance in the worldwide whaling debate was a tiny “museum” attached to a gas station, identified by a cheerful sign reading “Little Hvalasafnid – The Small Whale Museum” and accompanied by a cartoon whale illustration.
Whaling is a touchy issue, not openly discussed between travelers and locals for fear of offending another’s politics. On the way back from my diving trip, I gingerly brought up the issue in the van with two native Icelanders and one European who had been living there for years – a group I suspected would likely be anti-whaling. The mood turned icy as one of them bluntly cut off the conversation, stating, “I don’t think you understand the issue as clearly as you think you do, Meihoukai.” It was a telling response, considering that I had been careful not to state any opinion at all.
In Defense of Whales
Despite many urgent environmental issues swarming the world today, whaling in Iceland still makes the cut. Why such passion? It starts with a country violating international law. It is also a question of sustainability and conservation. Many scientists believe whale populations have been too depleted to sustain commercial whaling anytime in the foreseeable future. They are simply not suitable for human harvesting, and contrary to myth they are not responsible for reducing local fish stocks – making their deaths quite senseless. But there is another question, too, that of cetacean intelligence and the level of suffering that these animals undergo during harvest.
These whales — highly social beings with complex form of communication — suffer a cruel and slow death, often taking hours to die. Chris Tuite of the International Fund for Animal Welfare states that despite years of research trying to find one, “there is absolutely no way to kill a whale humanely, and we believe that on that basis alone, it’s time to say goodbye to whaling ().”
A minke whale in Iceland
Who Is Eating The Whale?
One of the most emotional pro-whaling arguments is that eating whale is a nationalistic practice, and many visitors to Iceland believe that trying whale is experiencing an inherent part of Icelandic culture. They could not be more wrong. According to recent Gallup polls, only 3% to 5% of Icelanders eat whale meat regularly ()! For a country of 320,000 people, that’s only 16,000 customers – certainly not enough to sustain the country’s whaling industry.
So what happens to the rest of it? It’s exported to Japan, where it rots in warehouses due to oversupply – or it’s consumed by curious tourists to Iceland. The same foreign tourists who on principle oppose whaling are keeping the minke whaling industry alive. According to the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society, 40% of the meat taken from the minke whales killed by Icelandic whalers is eaten by tourists holidaying in the country, obtained in one of the more than 100 shops and restaurants selling the meat.
A scientist in Reykjavík conducted a study in which she surveyed 1,500 tourists heading out on a whale-watching excursion. Imagine her surprise to find that 19% had already sampled whale meat on their trips, and a majority said they would eat it for “cultural and historic” reasons (). What causes this dichotomy, where 80% of travelers indicate in surveys that they morally oppose whaling, and yet 40% of the whale meat is being eaten by that same group ()?
Rob Marsland, UK Director of the IFAW, describes what I would call vacation syndrome:“Normal rules are suspended. You think eating whale meat is part of the culture, so it won’t make a difference if I eat it. It’s easy to have two different thoughts in your brain—I’m against whaling, and I’m on holiday so it’s OK to eat whale meat ().”
In my opinion, it is not okay at all. I was dismayed to see whale meat marketed so heavily towards tourists on the streets of Reykjavík, and to see many popular travel bloggers posting about eating it with little reference to the ethics of doing so. Tourists eating whale meat is not paying respects to Icelandic history, or making a nod to Icelandic culture – it’s tourists indulging their curiosity while turning a blind eye to a cruel industry.
Mixed messages in Reykjavík
Icelanders have lived with decades of pressure from the international community as well as occasionally destructive activism from groups like Sea Shepard, a controversial marine conservation group which Iceland labels an “eco-terrorism group”. Neither has dented Iceland’s resolve to do as it wishes and continue whaling.
In 1986, Sea Shepherd founder Paul Watson led a mission that ended in the sinking of two whaling boats in Reykjavík harbor. Today, Watson doesn’t mince words when he describes his position on Icelandic whaling:
“They do it in a pathetic attempt to hold onto the past so that they can continue to identify with their bloody legacy of whaling. It is a blood sport to them and a way of indulging in the sadistic pleasure of killing whales and thumbing their noses at other nations. Killing whales is the pursuit of little people with small minds with a lust to destroy creatures more intelligent and more beautiful than themselves. Sea Shepherd Conservation Society is supporting an international boycott of tourism to Iceland and a boycott of all Icelandic products ().”
I support Sea Shepherd both ideologically and with small contributions, but I cringe reading that statement. And I’m not the only one. Icelandic anti-whaling activist Sigursteinn Másson believes there would not be whaling in Iceland today had Sea Shepherd not sunk those two ships. “It was like a terrorist attack on Iceland. It made Icelanders determined to never give in,” he claims ().
Clearly, verbal and literal attacks on whalers have done little to slow whaling. I believe a truly effective campaign will be one that allows both residents and visitors to be pro-Iceland but also anti-whaling. Fortunately, there is an approach gaining traction in the conservation community that allows a country with something to lose from conservation — like the whaling industry — something more valuable to gain — such as the whale-watching industry.
Whale-watching in Faxaflói Bay
The Value Approach
There is another species in our oceans that has suffered cruelly due to human greed, but is now finding protection as conservationists learn to turn that monetary desire in their favor. For sharks, the economic benefits of tourism have been a life saver – literally. After a number of studies broke down the dollar value of a shark for its fin versus the sharks’ lifetime contribution to the shark-tourism industry, governments started to realize that sharks are indeed worth more alive than dead. For example, one highly respected Australian study determined that each individual reef shark was responsible for $179,000 per year in tourism revenue, as opposed to the going rate of $108 per shark fin (). Last year, the Bahamas joined a growing list of countries including Honduras, The Maldives, and Palau in deciding that data was worth changing laws for. All of those countries have signed into effect a ban on all commercial shark fishing as well as a ban on the trade of shark products (). The New York Times wrote more about the trend:
Interestingly, the “value approach” to endangered wildlife is catching on. The World Wildlife Fund, the Nature Conservancy and Stanford University have been working together to map and value nature on a larger scale around the world with a tool called InVEST. They have projects under way in Belize, Borneo, Colombia, Namibia, Sumatra, Tanzania, and Virunga in the Congo basin.
Could a similar approach, of carefully weighing the economic value of whales alive versus dead, work in Iceland? Tourism is the second-largest industry in Iceland (). In Reykjavík alone, whale watching attracts more tourists than any other activity. In 2010, whale watching’s total economic contribution to the country was estimated at US$16.4 million. (). At its peak, whaling in Iceland topped out at a US$4 million dollar a year industry ().
“Our business is much more profitable than theirs,” states Eva Maria Thorarinsdottir, marketing manager of Reykjavik’s Elding Whale Watching. She claims the minke whales were much more approachable before Iceland resumed hunting, and that they now — understandably – avoid ships (). An end to whaling and the resulting increase in sightings that Ms. Thorarinsdottir infers would result, would undoubtedly be a boon to the growing whale-watching industry – one that is growing globally to generate more than $2 billion per year ().
Until then, tour operators have reported customers cancelling their trips as political gestures () while a quick glance at sites like scubaboard.com, the Internet’s most popular scuba diving forum, reveals that while many are eager to dive in Iceland’s beautiful waters they won’t be visiting until whaling is ceased.
While in Reykjavík, my family and I were guests of the boat, one of many similar vessels heading out to Faxaflói Bay. We donned bright red jumpsuits and stood on the deck listening to the accented narration of our jovial guide while we spotted playful white beak porpoises, a colony of tiny puffins, and even a few shy minke whales. I crossed my fingers for a sighting of the endangered fin whale, but none came out to play. Perhaps they were seeking shelter in safer waters.
Whale-watching with Elding
A Call to Action
While the statistics on whale populations may be bleak, policies are moving in the right direction. In 2011, President Obama ordered the State Department to keep Iceland’s whaling activities under review while he considered trade sanctions against the country for their continued violations of the IWC – a move that would certainly test Iceland’s claims of economic dependence on whaling (). That same year, Kristjan Loftsson, the Icelandic whaling mogul responsible for killing 280 endangered fin whales over the past six years announced that due to economic issues, including difficulties in trading meat with Japan post-tsunami, he would not be fin whaling in 2012 (). While Mr. Loftsson says he hopes to resume fin whaling in the future and he continues to hunt minke whale in the meantime, perhaps this interlude will give the conservation community time to band together.
I join Greenpeace, Sea Shepard, the International Whaling Commission, The International Fund for Animal Welfare, The Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society and many other conservation and scientific groups in urging you not to consume whale meat when visiting Iceland. These magnificent creatures are meant to be observed where they belong, in the sea — not as a steak on your dinner plate. Put your dollars towards toward the economically and environmentally sustainable business of whale watching.
If you feel passionately about this issue, there are ways to be proactive. You can donate to or ’s campaigns, to ban Icelandic whaling, or join Pierce Brosnan in to impose trade sanctions on Iceland for illegal whaling.
This is a controversial topic, and I love a good debate! Let me know how you feel in the comments. Are you pro or anti whaling? Have you or would you try whale meat in Iceland?