Icelanders have been hunting whales since the days of the Vikings, but stopped commercial whaling in 1985 and scientific whaling in 1989, under the international moratorium on commercial hunts.
However, we’ve become a whaling nation again.
Most people know this by now, but what fewer know is that it was as much a surprise to Icelanders as it was to the rest of the world, when Minister of Fisheries Einar K. Gudfinnsson announced last week that whaling would become legal again.
Commercial whaling had not been discussed in media or in Parliament lately, so people were, to say the least, flabbergasted.
Some cheered — but most were simply stunned.
The new law took place immediately, so this past weekend, Iceland broke a 21-year-old international moratorium on commercial whaling by killing a fin whale — an endangered species according to the World Conservation Union, though their numbers are quite high in Iceland’s coastal waters.
Whaling is a touchy subject in Iceland, as it is in the rest of the world.
The International Whaling Commission banned commercial whaling under a moratorium imposed in 1985, and Iceland is a member of the IWC, having rejoined in 2002 after a 10-year absence.
Norway is the only other country that allows commercial whaling. Japan only allows whaling for scientific research purposes, though some question just how scientific this whaling is.
Iceland has recently allowed hunting of a few minke whales per year, again for scientific purposes, but the fin whale has not been commercially hunted in Icelandic waters for nearly two decades.
Greenpeace had a lot to do with whaling being banned.
Icelanders, being very stubborn people, were quite upset about being forced by outsiders to give up the hunt.
And perhaps understandably so.
No one likes to be told what to do, especially not by what appeared to be a bunch of well-off, hypocritical do-gooders spouting off about how to operate one of the island’s most important sources of income: the boat fleet.
Since then, commercial whaling has periodically been mentioned, but few have thought it would become legal in Iceland in the foreseeable future.
Some say the new law is a good thing, that the allowance of nine fin whales and 30 minke whales will not endanger the species further, but instead, will ensure there are more fish to be fished as there will be fewer whales to eat the fish.
Whether that’s true, I cannot say.
But I can tell you the majority of Icelanders are upset at the minister’s decision.
“Even the ones of us who before … believed in whaling, must agree that it’s unwise to start them now,” wrote writer Hallgrímur Helgason in one of Iceland’s newspapers, Fréttabladid, on Monday.
“We must accept that the world’s view of us is, simply stated, a more important source of income than nine unsaleable big whales dragged onto shore.”
He has a very good point.
According to a BBC news item released Monday, several tourists have cancelled their trips to Iceland simply because of Gudfinnsson’s decision.
“We have received several e-mails from people saying they have decided not to visit Iceland as long as Iceland is conducting whaling,” Thorunn Hardardottir, who runs a whale-watching company here, told the AFP news agency.
And as Iceland relies more and more on tourism, one must question the wisdom of this decision to hunt whales.
Furthermore, there are few reports on which scientists were consulted prior to the minister’s announcement and on what research they based their recommendations.
What is more, the meat is not popular in Iceland anymore.
Very few people eat whale meat now. Youngsters haven’t grown up with this dark-red meat and, thus, less likely to be fond of its slightly gamey taste.
Minister Einar hopes to sell much of the meat to Japan.
But rumour has it that Iceland’s former prime minister, Halldór Ásgrímsson, visited Japan in recent years and asked Prime Minister Junichiro Kozumi if his country would buy whale meat from Icelanders, were they to begin whaling again.
As the story goes, Kozumi stood up, walked to the window and said, “We have great problems with traffic here in Tokyo.”
Say no more.
What remains is that the market for whaling is and will be a problem.
Furthermore, people are questioning the decision from a marketing point of view.
No bid was held on the hunt and the fact it was not discussed openly before the announcement is seen as an indicator of something fishy.
Some say the government is using this to cover something else up — like the question of some minister’s phones possibly being wiretapped during the Cold War, presumably by our allies, the United States.
News of these wiretappings and further spying on Icelanders have been the hottest issue lately — until the 20-metre long whale was caught last weekend.
The move has understandably angered most environmentalists of the world, but what Gudfinnsson perhaps did not foresee was the political stir this caused among other nations.
Even our neighbours, the Swedes, along with the European Commission, have urged Iceland to reconsider its decision.
Now, more and more Icelanders push for that move as well.
“We are not paving the way for any real employment. This is no matter of national interest, but only old-fashioned patriotism: The last military urge of male chauvinism,” wrote Hallgrímur.
I must say I agree with him — as do all too many Icelanders.