Taking the ‘Meet Us Don’t Eat Us’ message directly to Iceland’s tourists

IFAW's Meet Us Don't Eat Us project is educating tourists in Iceland about whalingIceland is hot right now (figuratively speaking of course). This tiny country of 300,000 residents is set to receive 2 million visitors this year alone, meaning tourism has now replaced fishing as the island nation’s biggest industry. However, one unpleasant side-effect of this boom is that the country’s controversial commercial whale hunt has received an economic boost from unwitting tourists willing to pay for what they mistakenly believe to be an authentic Icelandic dining experience. Although many restaurants present whale meat in this way as a selling point, it is a misrepresentation to call whale meat Icelandic cuisine. Very few Icelanders eat the meat and whale hunting is not Icelandic tradition. Therefore, whales are being killed to feed tourists.

This is why every summer since 2011, IFAW deploys a globally diverse group of volunteers into Reykjavik’s tourist-heavy city centre to help with our “Meet Us Don’t Eat Us” campaign. This year, I had the good fortune to join them.  Our mission is to make direct connections with visitors to Reykjavik, who may be the ones tempted by a whale meat menu. We explain the issues and gather signatures for IFAW’s petition to the Icelandic government to stop the slaughter of cetaceans by turning Faxaflói bay into a sanctuary for whales.

Whale watching is a great way to show how much more these magnificent animals are worth alive, both as an unforgettable experience for visitors and in commercial revenue for Iceland. But how long can this last when slightly further out in the very same bay these animals are hunted with explosive harpoons?

Iceland's whaling vessel

I was pleasantly surprised by how many visitors were open to talking to us on the streets about whales! We engaged in some very encouraging discussions with tourists, collected hundreds of signatures between us and were often thanked for our work. It is clear that awareness of this issue is improving all the time as many of those I spoke to told me that they would not dream of tasting whale meat.

Crucially, there is also support for the campaign from within Iceland. Several restaurants now back us, proudly displaying the ‘whale friendly’ logo in their windows, while  IFAW’s work on this issue is also being promoted on whale watching trips and by local celebrity ambassadors.

A real breakthrough is the dialogue that has been achieved between IFAW and the Icelandic government.  Throughout the summer, the volunteer groups have met face to face with government officials to hand over our petition signatures in person and this opportunity has allowed us to make our feelings about whaling known (respectfully of course!). In my final week as a volunteer, we delivered 17,000 new signatures to the Fisheries Ministry and we are now very close to our goal of 50,000 signatures this summer.

This kind of peaceful and constructive dialogue would simply not be possible with other campaigning methods. By working from within Iceland running a positive campaign for a permanent solution, IFAW has been able to make the case to those who have the power to make real change.  For the first time ever, Iceland’s Minister of Fisheries has said that the country’s commercial whaling policy needs to be reviewed. The Icelandic parliament has opened their doors to us; we will keep returning until commercial whaling in Iceland is finally ceased.

--AM

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Experts

Brian Sharp, Emergency Relief Officer, Stranding Coordinator
Manager, Marine Mammal Rescue and Research
Dr. Maria (Masha) N. Vorontsova, Regional Director, Russia & CIS
Regional Director, Russia & CIS
Matt Collis, Director, International Policy
Director, International Policy
Patrick Ramage, Program Director, Whales
Program Director, Marine Conservation