What on Earth Is the Point to Whaling?
The following post is an essay written by Alp Mehmet, UK Ambassador to Iceland from 2004 to 2008. A terrific advocate for Iceland and for whales. Thought you all would enjoy, read on...
I am about to come to the end of my second tour of duty in this extraordinary and beautiful country, having been the British Ambassador to Iceland since 2004. After living here for a total of 8 years, I reckon I can claim with some confidence to understanding the country and its people.
UK-Iceland relations have gone from strength to strength and I believe are now as good as they have ever been. The only fly in the ointment has of course been whaling. I understand where my good friends Einar K Gudfinnsson, the Minister for Fisheries and Agriculture and Kristjan Loftsson are coming from and appreciate the strength of feeling among some Icelanders, especially those in small isolated fishing communities hit by the reduction in fishing quotas. But I just do not see how anyone could possibly believe that whaling was in Iceland's wider interests, or not appreciate the damage it does to Iceland's image abroad.
The decision to hunt 40 minke whales for commercial purposes,
notwithstanding the IWC moratorium and despite the small numbers who
eat whale meat regularly, if at all, makes little sense to me.
You don't need to be a genius to work out that whaling is seen by the
outside world as being harmful to Iceland's reputation for care and
concern for the environment. And it is not just governments and
diplomats that react against the hunting of whales. In 2006, when
Iceland announced its intention to hunt minke and fin whales for
commercial purposes, it provoked some powerful reactions in my country
that resulted in protests, led by the UK, from countries all around the
world with a collective population of over a billion people. Surely,
we couldn't all have been wrong.
I was talking recently to a group of about twenty 19-20 year old
students and they raised whaling, what do you think, they asked. I
responded by asking if any of them had eaten whale meat recently - none
had and all made clear they wouldn't. I said I had a similar reaction
from 50 or 60 students last year (one had said he ate whale meat
regularly). The vast majority of young people I have spoken to have
not understood why anyone should want to eat whale meat. As far as I
can tell, even older folk seldom eat it.
From time to time, I have had statistics and numbers thrust at me and
scientific evidence cited by pro-whalers that supposedly proved
conclusively that whales have reduced fish stocks. But no one has been
able to explain to me why the world's fish stocks were at their peak
when whales were at their most numerous.
Could it be that at least some of the fish eaten by whales are not of
species that humans eat? Certain species eaten by whales could even be
major predators of the very species that we want to catch. So that
hunting whales might actually harm some fish stocks.
Icelandic marine scientists are among the best in the world and need no
lectures from me about the complexity of the ecosystem. And yet, they
persist in supporting the simplistic and deeply flawed argument that
whales eat our fish and have to be hunted for that reason, if for no
When Einar K announced last year that he would not allocate a new quota
for commercial whaling until there was a clearer market for whale meat
and export matters were clarified, his decision was welcomed in many
countries. His foresight and wisdom were applauded and Iceland
received a huge amount of positive worldwide coverage. My embassy, and
I imagine Iceland's embassy's around the world too received many
letters and e-mails expressing joy and relief at this news. Perhaps,
some people even booked their holidays to Iceland on the back of that
news (and around 70.000 of last year's visitors to Iceland were from
the United Kingdom).
Also, 104.000 people (nearly 25% of all visitors to Iceland) went whale
watching last year. The Whale Watching industry has revived areas that
had been struggling for years. Husavik is a prime example of what
whale watching can do for an area. When I visited the town a few weeks
ago, I didn’t come across anyone who was looking to whaling for a
This leads me to conclude that there are few, if any, economic benefits
to commercial whaling and it is hard not to see it posing a threat to
the success of Iceland's whale watching and eco-tourism operations. On
the other hand, a healthy whale watching industry benefits coastal
communities and clearly provides a longer term, sustainable income.
The recent claim that meat from Fin whales hunted in 2006 had found its
way to Japan (although the Japanese government seemed not to be aware
of this) was offered as evidence of a market for the meat. If it takes
two years from hunting to shipment, after which the meat has still to
be cleared for human consumption, I'd say that was pretty sound
evidence that there wasn't a market.
When my Government says we are at a loss to see any justification for
the decision to hunt 40 minke whales, we really do say it as friends.
It is a decision that has disappointed many people in both the UK and
Iceland, including members of your government. It is also a decision
that will leave many young Icelanders perplexed. They will see it as a
policy reversal that can only do damage to the tourist industry, to
whale populations, to Iceland's interests abroad, and to Iceland's
international reputation. I agree with them.