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EXPO-nential progress linking fish with Icelandic whaling

I’ve just returned from the Seafood Expo Global in Brussels.  As its name suggests, it is the largest seafood trade show in the world, boasting nearly 1,700 company stands and attracting more than 25,000 members of the seafood industry from around the world.

So why was WDC there? Quite simply, to highlight the links between fisheries and whales and dolphins. These are numerous, of course, and many people are already aware of the threats posed to whales and dolphins by badly-managed fishing activities (including entanglement in nets and other gear). This time, however, our aim was to publicise the explicit link between Iceland’s largest fishing company, HB Grandi,  and the Hvalur hf  fin whaling company, in the shape of Hvalur hf owner and HB Grandi Chair, Kristjan Loftsson.

Alongside NGO colleagues, I spoke to representatives from some of Europe’s largest supermarkets and food outlets, including Marks and Spencer and Icelandic Seachill (which owns the popular ‘Saucy Fish Company’ brand in the UK).  This spring, we are asking retailers in the UK, Germany, France and the Netherlands to audit their supply chain for the presence of HB Grandi fish, so it was good to be able to speak face to face with industry representatives and very heartening to realise that sustainability and conservation are high on the agenda for many of these companies.

‘Sustainability’ is also a buzz word within the Icelandic fishing industry and at the HB Grandi booth, reps were busy handing out giveaways emblazoned with the rather ironic legend ‘In harmony with nature’. We met with HB Grandi CEO, Vilhjálmur Vilhjálmsson, who gave us half an hour of his time and to his credit, answered our polite but probing questions very courteously.  The Grandi party line is that Mr Loftsson is but one of many shareholders – countered by us of course with the fact that, as company Chair and major shareholder, he is hardly just one of  the masses!  When asked whether he was concerned that his company’s reputation was being damaged by its association with whaling, Vilhjálmur admitted that this was so – but added that it was difficult to question the business activities of their Chair.

The ‘S’ word came up shortly afterwards too, when we spoke next to the Icelandic Fisheries Minister, Sigurður Ingi Jóhannsson, who was adamant – as were so many Icelanders we encountered – that Iceland has the right to ‘sustainably harvest its natural resources’, including whales. We responded that commercial whaling is banned by the IWC (International Whaling Commission), and in any case, Iceland’s self-allocated quota of 134 fin whales is far in excess of any quota that the IWC might [hypothetically] set and is certainly not sustainable.  In the case of minke whales, even Iceland’s state-funded HAFRO (Marine Research Institute) has noted a statistically-significant population decline in recent years and admits off the record that they simply don’t know enough about the whales in their waters to confidently set catch levels. 

We also politely reminded the Minister – echoing a recent parliamentary question to him from an Icelandic Left Green MP – that there is no humane way to kill a whale and that Iceland has consistently failed in recent years to supply data to the IWC relating to its hunts, killing methods and TTD (time to death rates). The official line has been that this data is not currently required under Icelandic law but the Minister did promise to look again at this issue.

Hopefully, then, the tide is turning.