Whales Are Not Fish (KH)

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katharinahauptmann02_dlDuring my most recent bar tending shift last weekend, two foreign guests asked me for a restaurant that serves typical Icelandic food. I named a few nice places. Then the two women wanted to know if those establishments served whale meat.

There it was: the whaling question. The sword of Damocles that is present in almost every conversation about Iceland.

The bar I work in is frequented by tourists so I get the whale meat question quite a lot.

Of course I understand that people are curious about whale meat; it's an exotic dish and many tourists want to seize the opportunity and try it when they’re in a whaling country (like Iceland) and try it. And there are enough restaurants and bars that could fulfill their culinary curiosity.

But I always hesitate when people ask me the where-to-get-whale-meat question. A part of me wants to scream at them in disgust and the other part wants to show them the way to a restaurant.

I myself like to try all kind of exotic food. But I have my limits. I decided not long ago, not to eat whale meat ever again.

Yes, I have tried it several times. And I quite like it. But it's not worth having a bad conscience for weeks.

And one should have a bad conscience or at least some twinge of conscience when indulging in a juicy whale steak.

Because whales are not just some animals. Several subspecies of whales are endangered. Every child knows that! But apparently not every adult.

In 2006 Iceland resumed commercial whaling and is thereby along with Norway the only country in the world that hunts, slaughters and exports whales for commercial purposes. No reason to be proud here. At least Japan claims to hunt cetaceans for scientific research.

In the 2010 whaling season in Iceland, whaling company Hvalur’s (“Whale”) fleet of black whaling ships of and other vessels killed 148 fin whales and more than 80 minke whales. Pro-whaling Icelanders claim whale hunting was sustainable and responsible.

The annual catch quota of fin and minke whales was less than one percent of their estimated population, according to Sigurdur Sveinn Sverrisson, spokesperson of LÍU, the Federation of Icelandic Fishing Vessel Owners. Furthermore, Sverrisson falsely states that fin whales aren’t even endangered.

According to the Red List of Threatened Species issued by the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature), the fin whale is indeed endangered.

So even if the fin whale population is stable in Icelandic waters right now, should Iceland declare open season on fin whales, Mr. Sverrisson? Isn't that a naïve assessment of the situation? Would you recommend continue hunting fin whales until they disappear from Icelandic waters completely?

The other strong argument brought forward in support of whaling is the financial benefit. This benefit is up for debate, though, since the world market for whale meat is small and in decline.

Since the demand on the local food market is very small, all fin whale meat is exported, almost exclusively to Japan.

In a report dealing with the economics of commercial whaling, produced by WWF (World Wide Fund) and WDCS (Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society) based on a study by Economics for the Environment Consultancy (eftec), one can read in black and white that the market for whale meat is world wide in decline.

Furthermore, whaling bears a risk of negative impact, such as trade sanctions and tourism boycotts. All this leads to the conclusion that commercial whale hunting does not have benefits for the Icelandic nation or its tax-payers.

There cannot be any discussion about whaling in Iceland without mentioning Kristján Loftsson; nobody personifies whaling like him. Mr. Loftsson is the CEO of the aforementioned whaling company Hvalur and has been a whale hunter for 50 years. Needless to say, Kristján Loftsson is a passionate advocate for the whaling business.

At an International Whaling Commission conference in June 2010, Loftsson offered his opinion on the conference itself: “a waste of time and money”, and on whales: “whales are just another fish for me, an abundant marine source, nothing else”, according to an AFP article.

Poor man. In addition he mocked the high intelligence of cetaceans by asking why the animals consequently just didn't stay away from Icelandic waters. What a... darling. I have no family-friendly words for this man.

To me, the bottom line is:

1) Some whale subspecies are endangered and need protection.

2) Commercial whaling is economically marginal and not profitable for Iceland due to the over-saturation of a minuscule world market.

3) Shame on Captain Ahab, eh, I mean Mr. Loftsson.

4) Whaling makes Iceland look bad!

Therefore it's more than reasonable to oppose whaling, even if it’s only alone on economic grounds.

In 2007, Einar K. Gudfinnsson, former Minister of Fisheries, told Reuters: “The whaling industry, like any other industry, has to obey the market. If there's no profitability, there is no foundation for resuming with the killing of whales.”

Why then does Iceland continue to hunt cetaceans? That doesn't make any sense.

Next time a tourist asks me about whale meat I will tell him or her to book a whale watching tour instead.

Katharina Hauptmann – katha.hauptmann@gmx.de

Views expressed here are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Iceland Review.