Icelandic whaling: Hot heads, dead whales and next steps

Démarcher is a French verb meaning to march. Late last Friday afternoon, officials representing 11 countries from around the world marched a diplomatic cable, or "demarche" into the Icelandic Embassy in Washington, D.C. and formally delivered it to Iceland's Ambassador Mr. Hijalmar W. Hanneson. This is a welcome move and a first warning shot in what could be a ultimately be a costly global skirmish for the Icelandic Government.

Iceland continues whaling despite protests from the international community.

During the most recent annual meeting of the International Whaling Commission (IWC) held in Agadir, Morocco last June, I had an unofficial interchange with Iceland's less than diplomatic IWC Commissioner Mr. Tomas Heidar. I approached Commissioner Heidar during a coffee break as officials and NGOs from various countries were exchanging polite chit-chat outside the plenary meeting. I intended to compliment Mr. Heidar on his intervention just before the break. Though I disagreed with his basic points, he had given one of the best argued and delivered statements I'd heard in 15 years of attending such meetings.

As I shook his hand and introduced myself, Heidar's face darkened. "I don't think too much of IFAW," he told me. As I began to convey my thought on his statement, Heidar suddenly snapped: "Are you this man who made this comment about Iceland's economy?" "Wait a second," I urged him. He glared at me and snapped again: "You expect me to talk to you when you have said this about our economic situation?"

The line Commissioner Heidar was referring to was a loose comment I'd made to a journalist from the International Herald Tribune several months earlier. When asked why Iceland's Fisheries Ministry was self-allocating sky high quotas for endangered fin whales, I responded saying: "Apparently the government of Iceland wants to do for saving whales what it's already done for saving money."

To the astonishment of his staff and others who witnessed it, Commissioner Heidar turned on his heel and marched away from me that afternoon, refusing to continue our conversation. In retrospect, it was probably the right move. He made his point. My effort at a clever sound bite was a cheap shot at the struggling Icelandic economy and was probably out of line. Mr. Heidar wouldn't listen to me, but you can give his arguments a hearing here.

Unfortunately, it seems that Mr. Heidar and his cronies are content to keep harpooning the Icelandic economy and even to put Icelandic tourism and fisheries exports at risk by pursuing a hunt for endangered whales that even their own public refuses to eat. All of this is pursued in the name of a mythical export market for whale meat in Japan, yet the lion's share of the whale meat landed by a lone Icelandic businessman to date remains frozen in refrigeration facilities not far from Reykjavik.

On a more positive and progressive note, growing numbers of Icelanders are questioning why their hard-earned tax dollars should support such a boondoggle, and Iceland's booming whale watching industry is emerging as a world leader in eco-tourism, demonstrating that whales are worth much more to coastal economies alive than dead. Perhaps the good people of Iceland will ultimately encourage their Fisheries Ministry to do an about-face.

-- PR

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