A lone Icelander sets sail targeting fin whales for the first time in three years
I arrived in Reykjavik at midnight on Sunday.
I was tired but the sun wasn’t – it was still well above the horizon and showed no signs of wanting to go to bed, unlike me.
This trip is a sad one because I suspect that the lone Icelandic fin whaler Kristjan Loftsson is going to kill whales for the first time in three years while I’m here.
Yesterday I caught up with our Icelandic representative and the local whale watching operators. They are concerned about the fin whaling and deeply worried that the incoming Fisheries Minister (after recent General Election) will overturn the extended whale sanctuary that they fought so hard for.
The Minister says he is reviewing it…
The extended sanctuary is still operating right now and the minke whalers have to go much further afield to find their prey. They’ve been in northern waters trying to track down minkes. They don’t seem to be having much “success”.
In fact their only kills so far have been in another whale watching area in the North West – much to the displeasure of local whale watchers.
One thing that is becoming clear is that the minke whalers want to operate in exactly the same areas as the whale watchers. Or as the whale watchers say, “they’re killing our whales”. The minke whalers make no bones about it; when the extended sanctuary was announced they complained because “we kill 80% of whales in what is now the new area”.
The International Fund for Animal Welfare’s ‘Meet Us Don’t Eat Us’ campaign launched its third summer season at the weekend.
It is a project aimed at overseas tourists that asks them not to eat whale meat while they are here. In the past, as much as 40% of the minke whale meat was estimated to be eaten by tourists in local restaurants.
Tourists often think that everyone in Iceland eats whale meat and that if they try “a little bit” it won’t make a difference.
The truth is that less than 5% of Icelanders regularly eat whale meat and that more than 20 whales a year are killed to satisfy tourists’ curiosity about a food they would never consider eating again. ‘Meet Us Don’t Eat Us’ reaches out to the tourists through a dedicated team of volunteers in two huge whale costumes.
They ask tourists to sign a postcard that pledges not to eat whale meat and makes it clear that they are against whaling.
By the end of last season, the number of tourists eating whale meat had gone down to 22% according to a survey of departing tourists.
We are hopeful that the combination of an extended sanctuary and the third season of Meet Us Don’t Eat Us may well persuade the minke whalers that the bottom is falling out of their market.
If the new Fisheries Minister rescinds the extended sanctuary, they will still have to cope with the impact of Meet Us Don’t Eat Us and this year’s new development – Whale Friendly Restaurants.
For the first time this year we will be asking restaurants that don’t serve whale meat (just about a majority in Reykjavik) to display a sticker that describes them as whale friendly.
Our volunteers in the whale costumes and our friends in the whale watching companies then ask tourists to favour those restaurants when they are eating out.
When I woke up on my second morning here, I saw the dispiriting sight of one of Kristjan Loftsson’s 60-year-old whaling vessels steaming out to sea.
It looks like he is going to continue his one-man crusade against fin whales.
If his crew catch a fin whale, they will return the next day with it strapped to the side of the vessel before it is flensed at his whaling station down the coast from Reykjavik.
I plan to be there to witness this sad task.
Recently, there was much negative publicity in Iceland about the fact that some of the fin whale meat goes into dog food in Japan. Also, for the first time, a shareholder of the whaling company complained in public that the enterprise lost money and should end. On top of that, the Dutch authorities received over a million emails complaining that the port of Rotterdam is used in exporting the fin whale meat from Iceland to Japan.
Despite the fact that the minke whalers are desperately looking for minkes to kill and the one lone fin whaler’s boat is at sea as I write, it really feels that there has been a sea change in Iceland about whaling.
The national newspaper has called for it to end.
The tourist organisations are dead set against the whaling and are no longer willing to remain silent in public.
Even Mr Loftsson’s own shareholders are going public against the whaling.
They say it’s darkest before dawn.
It’s the land of the midnight sun right now in Iceland, but that will change…