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Iceland 2013: Saga #12. Whale watching in a whaling area.

In this, the second part of the Elding blog, María Björk Gunnarsdóttir looks at the challenges faced by a whale watching operator working in the same bay as the whalers. In fact, the whale watch boats are moored alongside the fin whaling fleet in the Old Harbour in Reykjavik. I think one of the facts I was most disgusted by is that the minke whalers take just 11-20% of the whale meat and discard most of the carcass while still at sea. There are hundreds of rotting minke whale carcasses on the seabed in Faxafloi Bay – what this must sound and ‘feel’ like to the intelligent, sentient whales that survived the harpoon must be unbearable. Maria takes up the whaling vs. whale watch story here. It comes as no surprise that Iceland is considered one of the top whale watching destinations in Europe. The rich feeding grounds surrounding Iceland have attracted whales for centuries and the conditions for viewing them are excellent. Thinking back in time it makes perfect sense as to why foreign, and later Icelandic whalers, sought out the resources in these waters. What does come as a surprise, however is that still today, in the 21st century, whaling continues to take place in these waters, and, what is more, in the same area that tens of thousands of tourists go whale watching every year. In 2003 our hopes that whale watching would eventually replace all urges for whaling in the Icelandic community were dashed. The Icelandic government introduced a four-year scientific whaling scheme resulting in the deaths of 200 minke whales. The scientific whaling lead to the resumption of commercial whaling in 2006 and from then on well over 300 Minke Whales and close to 300 fin whales have been killed.

During this time tourism in Iceland has grown exponentially and so too has whale watching alongside. Last year alone, over 170,000 passengers went whale watching, that’s around one third of all visitors to Iceland. What is surprising though, is these tourists are keeping the whaling industry afloat due to the amount of whale meat bought in restaurants and supermarkets. A poll conducted by IFAW in 2010 concluded that only 5% of Icelandic’s eat whale meat regularly. It is fascinating to see these two contrasting industries rising together. However, by digging deeper the whale watching operators have voiced their concerns as their statistics indicate declining sightings and poorer quality of the tours, which naturally can have dramatic long-term effects on whale watching in Iceland if it continues. Even though whaling has very limited support internationally, Icelanders have proven supportive of this industry over the years. The most likely explanation for this support is to be found in a political discourse. The Icelandic government emphasises its sovereign right to determine the exploitation of all resources within Icelandic territorial waters, usually referred to as “their resources”. Catching whales has therefore been seen more or less the same as catching fish. Following the resumption of whaling the whalers also embraced the idea of increased exports, revenue and employment for the Icelanders while ignoring CITES regulations on the ban of trading in whale products. This emphasis on economic benefits proved an effective way to garner the public’s support during the economic recession in Iceland following the bank crisis in 2008. The opponents of whaling doubted the real economic benefits of the industry from the start. Their emphasis has been on presenting whale watching as the only sustainable use of these resources. With the passing years more and more Icelanders are seeing the big picture and slowly the attitudes are changing. Icelanders are now seeing that whaling is not only morally wrong, it is damaging for whale watching industry and also messy, unsustainable and bad for the image of Iceland. What can you do to help: Come to Iceland and go whale watching. By going out on a boat you are helping us demonstrate that whale watching is more beneficial than whaling. Don’t eat whale meat! Voice your concern! – Let restaurant owners know that you don’t like the fact that they serve whale meat or better yet let them know that you are not eating there because they serve whale meat. – Send a letter / e-mail to the Icelandic government – Send a letter / e-mail to the Icelandic Tourist Board Avoid Icelandic fish products from HB Grandi (fish supplied by Icelandic whalers) Support anti-whaling campaigns