Despite whaling being allowed again: the rising costs and lack of demand for Icelandic whale meat could spell the end for the harvesting of the marine mammals. As a side effect, Iceland could experience a bigger boom of whale watching tourists.
True, the whaling ban expired at the end of August, allowing it to resume for at least another month. But Iceland will end its commercial whaling practices by 2024 because of dwindling economic benefits, Fisheries Minister Svandis Svavarsdottir wrote in the Icelandic newspaper Morgunbladid a while back. “There are few justifications for authorizing whale hunting beyond 2024,” the left-green minister wrote. “There is little evidence that this activity has any economic benefit,” she added. Iceland is one of the few countries, along with Norway and Japan, that allow commercial whaling.
The Ministry of Fisheries had suspended the hunting of fin whales on June 20, just before the start of the fishing season. This is the only whale species that is still taken in Iceland’s waters. To justify the hunting ban, Svandís Svavarsdóttir, the Minister of Food, Agriculture and Fisheries, cited a report she commissioned on May 8. In it, a panel of experts examined whether or not Icelandic whaling complies with animal welfare laws.
That there was something amiss was confirmed by videos from August and September 2022, which the Veterinary Surveillance Authority took on the whaler boats. Whalers are expected to kill whales with a single, well-aimed harpoon with a grenade tip that explodes seconds after impact.
However, the footage showed how agonizing the hunt for fin whales is. Almost a quarter of the animals shot had to be harpooned several times; they had survived the first blast. The death struggle of two fin whales dragged on for one to two hours. Another animal was chased for five hours. Because the line of the harpoon, which was stuck in his back, had snapped.
The Icelandic Council for Animal Welfare reviewed the report, and concluded that whaling on this scale was incompatible with animal welfare laws. Svavarsdóttir immediately responded by banning the hunt, and animal welfare organizations around the world welcomed the call. Robert Read of Sea Shepherd UK called the suspension “a major blow” to whaling in general.
But at the end of August, to the surprise of many, this stop was not extended. Instead, the minister appeared in front of the media and declared the resumption of whaling to be ok. For this, she then received applause from supporters of whaling in Iceland, where around 150 jobs are still dependent on it.
But the whole thing comes with a catch for the whalers: tougher regulations and more monitoring. Has Minister Svavarsdottir thus made good on her statement for the end of her country’s internationally heavily criticized commercial whaling and really dealt the industry a death blow? That will become clear in the coming year.
Tourism increases as whaling dwindles
Iceland’s booming tourism industry, which includes popular whale-watching tours, also welcomed the end of the hunt and expressed shock at the resumption. Polls have shown that the general public in Iceland is opposed to the whale hunt. In the process, a survey in June showed that 51% of the people asked were opposed to whaling.
In 2019, before the pandemic began, about 360,000 whale watchers visited the island, which is the equivalent of the population of Iceland. This is unlikely to change, despite the about-face at the end of August. And if Minister Svavarsdottir is right, Iceland could see a boom in whale-watching tourists in the future, benefiting tourism in general.
Heiner Kubny, PolarJournal
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