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Pincer movement: Why ending whaling in Iceland will be a team effort

I’m just back from a short trip to monitor whaling activities in Iceland. In my last blog, I described feelings of anger and sorrow as we watched healthy, endangered fin whales landed and butchered – almost certainly to join other hapless members of their species in industrial freezers in Japan.  As I write, at least 58 fin whales have already died this season.  Minke whales, too – 19 at the last count – are being killed, largely to feed tourists, many of whom are seemingly unaware that the locals themselves almost never touch the stuff.  Too many whales killed,  cruelly and needlessly.

If logic and economics were the only determinants, whaling would have ended a long time ago. However, there is neither logic nor profit behind the hunts: the minke whalers constantly flirt with bankruptcy whilst fin whaling endures thanks only to subsidies from a single stubborn yet wealthy man.

So what can be done?

My feeling is that, just as an orchestra cannot function without its string or woodwind section, or a football team without its goalkeeper or defenders, so the campaign against whaling in Iceland must be a team effort if it is to have any chance of success.  It is up to all of us who care passionately about whales and want to stop the scourge of whaling to work together to attack the problem from several angles simultaneously.  It is this pincer movement which will ultimately have the best chance of success.

Whilst in Iceland, we talked to politicians, journalists, the whale watch community, tourists and local people. Back home, we speak regularly to governments, IWC (International Whaling Commission) commissioners, as well as to our supporters and the general public. We also work closely with other like-minded animal welfare and conservation organisations. It is clear that everyone has a role to play, both domestically and internationally and, rather like a jigsaw puzzle or a spider’s web, each individual action both links into, and supports, other actions in the growing push against whaling.

Here are some of the things WDC and our allies are doing to fight whaling in Iceland:

We’re congratulating politicians and journalists who ask probing questions about the whaling within Iceland.  Questions were recently asked in the Althingi (Icelandic parliament) regarding welfare issues, including secrecy surrounding ‘time to death’ rates, and monitoring and surveillance of the hunts, and opposition MPs have demanded an economic review of whaling (due to be published later this year).  One political commentator shared with us his view that any support for whaling from certain sectors of the population on the basis of some perceived ‘traditional, romantic attachment to the sea’ would soon shift if there was a risk that Iceland might become isolated on the world stage due to its whaling.

We’re working to support the local whale watch community and contest the whalers’ argument that the two industries can happily co-exist: We’ve long supported the Icelandic whale watch industry’s efforts to promote the responsible viewing of live whales. This also means countering the whalers’ assertion that the two industries can happily co-exist.  This latter point was brought home forcibly to us during our visit when we spoke to guides working aboard a whale watch vessel operating in Faxafloi Bay. 

They told us that, the day before our arrival, some passengers had become distressed at the spectacle of a fin whaling vessel passing with two dead whales strapped to the side, heading for the whaling station. The guides also shared their impression that local minke whales, a species renowned for their friendly curiosity, were less willing to approach vessels due to minke whaling activities just outside the ‘no whaling zone’ in the bay.

Several people have speculated that this could be a learned survival mechanism – after all whales are intelligent animals and it is not beyond the realms of possibility that the more docile, curious minke whales are also those most easily picked off by the whalers’ harpoons. This is merely speculation of course, but if true, it is a pretty damning indictment of the way the whalers exploit and betray the minkes’ innate trust of humans. Worryingly, it also means that whale watch encounters could become less satisfying, because wary whales are obviously less enjoyable to watch.  Iceland offers amazing whale watching opportunities and the industry has long been a brave and outspoken opponent of whaling. As such, it deserves our full support.

We’re urging like-minded governments and IWC commissioners to strongly condemn commercial whaling in Iceland (and elsewhere).  WDC attends key meetings and we provide briefings to our official representatives, including for the recent CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species) meeting in Geneva, and the upcoming 65th IWC meeting in Slovenia, this September.

We’re publicizing the strong links between fin whaling and one of Iceland’s largest seafood companies, HB Grandi.  Kristjan Loftsson owns Hvalur hf, Iceland’s sole fin whaling company and is also Chair of HB Grandi: this latter has also allowed Hvalur to use its processing facilities.  We’re working with other NGOs to ask major high-street retailers and suppliers across Europe to audit their seafood supply chain for the presence of Grandi products, and explaining our belief that consumers won’t want to purchase seafood linked to whaling.  Already some big names including Findus Group, High Liner and Whole Foods have blacklisted Grandi because of its links to whaling and it is likely that more will follow. We will be publishing the results of our audit this summer.

We’re asking tourists not to eat whale meat whilst in Iceland and explaining that, contrary to popular belief, this isn’t a ‘traditional’ dish and in fact, consumption by tourists is what is keeping the industry alive since only 3% of locals regularly eat whale meat. 

We’re countering prevailing myths used to justify whaling, including the still-circulating but easily debunked ‘whales eat all our fish’ argument: this recently morphed still further, as revealed in a recent vox pop interview on the streets of Reykjavik, when a local man declared: “There are too many whales. They eat all the fish, causing the puffins in the Westman Islands to die out. The whales are eating so much fish that the birds and other species can’t get any food.”

In short, we’re fighting Icelandic whaling on every front: economic, geo-political, scientific and ethical.  My strong belief is that this ‘pincer movement’ is having an effect and the whalers are being squeezed from several angles.

If ever there was a time to keep the pressure up, that time is now. If ever there was a time to force the whalers to blink first, that time is now. If we stand together and keep the faith, we can consign whaling in Iceland to the past, where it belongs.

How you can help

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About Vanessa Williams-Grey

Policy manager - Stop Whaling and Responsible Whale Watching