Political will to end commercial whaling in Iceland

Left to right, MPs Rupa Huq and Kevin Foster and the author meet some of the international volunteers helping to spread IFAW’s whale protection message ‘Meet Us Don’t Eat Us’ in Reykjavik.This summer I got the opportunity to showcase the International Fund for Animal Welfare's (IFAW) work defending whales and winning hearts and minds in Iceland to two British MPs - Rupa Huq MP, Labour (Ealing Central and Acton) and Kevin Foster MP, Conservative (Torbay). Whilst both come from opposing political parties, they were united in their mission to learn more about the commercial whaling issue in Iceland and meet with key decision makers to discuss the positive benefits of an end to this cruel practice.  

We started with a meeting with the manager of Reykjavik's amazing Whales of Iceland exhibition and received a guided tour around the magnificent exhibition which showcases life size models of whales found in and around Iceland's waters. From there we went to IFAW's Iceland 'HQ', our wooden cabin in the port. The cabin serves as an info point for tourists en route to the whale watching boats, to give advice about how they can be truly whale friendly whilst in Iceland.

One of the main focus areas for this is IFAW's successful Meet Us Don't Eat Us campaign which aims to stop the very same tourists who are going whale watching from inadvertently keeping Iceland's commercial whaling in business. They risk doing this by going to a local restaurant and eating whale meat from the menu. Although this whale meat is marketed to tourists as a true Icelandic experience, recent polls show a mere 3 percent of Icelanders eat whale meat regularly themselves. 

Each summer the campaign is boosted by hordes of international volunteers who walk around the port and the city talking to tourists about the issue and this year gaining online signatures for a petition showing that people from Iceland and beyond don't want to eat whale meat. Headed by Icelandic rock star Hogni Egilsson from the band GusGus, the campaign at www.ifaw.is has already attracted a phenomenal 98,000+ signatures out of the target 100,000, making it by far the largest petition in Iceland’s history! It was great for me and the MPs to meet these passionate volunteers from the UK, Netherlands and South Korea amongst other places, coming together to influence positive change. 

After lunch with the CEO of Elding Whale Watching, the largest whale watching operation in Iceland, who expressed her concerns regarding the impact of commercial whaling on her business and on the whole booming tourism industry, we headed off to meet with the new President of Iceland, Guðni Thorlacius Jóhannesson. Just a few weeks in to his new post, the Head of State welcomed us into his Presidential Residence to discuss the whaling issue. Though very good at remaining apolitical and not giving his view on the subject, it was great for him to see the high profile interest in the issue and hear the views of the British MPs.

Then it was back to the port for us to see our first whales with an enjoyable whale watching excursion. Seeing these magnificent giants of the sea in real life (we saw four minke whales), and seeing how excited and moved the boat load of tourists were with every small glimpse of a whale fin, it once again confirmed that commercial whaling and whale watching simply can't and shouldn't coexist. 

On day two we started with an interview for Morgunblaðið, Iceland's biggest newspaper. Having two British MPs visiting Iceland distinctly to focus on commercial whaling was big news in Iceland. Soon after, we met with two Icelandic MPs – Gudlaugur Thor Thordarson (Independence Party) and Sigridur Ingibjorg Ingadottir (Social Democrats) to discuss the whaling issue. Whilst it's fair to say that opinions around the table differed for some, we nonetheless had a healthy debate.

Our final formal meeting was with the British Ambassador, Stuart Gill, at the British Embassy. Stuart is into his last few weeks in post and he has been a staunch ally of IFAW in our work to stop commercial whaling since his posting began, so we are all sad to see him go. 

As we left Iceland I asked both Rupa and Kevin for their reflections on the trip:

"Commercial whaling just doesn't seem to add up - even without any of the welfare issues. It's also clear that a campaign like this, or indeed any campaign, needs to be led by the local people and that's why IFAW’s campaign seems to be working so well. It was good to see attitudes shifting amongst the people here, and let's hope that commercial whaling in Iceland is soon a thing of the past, just like the whale bone corsets we saw in the Whales of Iceland museum,” Rupa commented. 

Kevin focused on the massive contrast between whale watching and whale killing: “The key thing that stuck in my mind was the real contrast between the energy, job creation and regenerative effect that whale watching is having in Reykjavik and across Iceland and the tourist pound, dollar and euro that it brings to Iceland, then contrasting this with the relics of the past sat in the same port right opposite, with no life and no activity, and how symbolic that is to highlight that whaling is really an activity of the past.

“Even when talking to those that support whaling, you sense that there is a real acknowledgement that whaling is an industry whose days are numbered.”

With attitudes within Iceland changing and tourism growing, it really does seem that the end is finally in sight.

--PM

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