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Whale Hunting in Iceland

Will lack of market demand save Icelandic whales?
Iwona Roman

"We are back in business with about 100 tons of excellent eco-friendly whale meat and blubber ready for the market.", said Kristjan Loftsson to the Telegraph, after concluding his first commercial whale hunt in Iceland in late October, 2006. The Icelandic one-man-show is back again. Kristjan Loftsson and his rotting whale business (Hvalur hf) has made waves, this time in the Icelandic newspapers.

Rendering Whales
I skim through Skessuhorn, a local paper in Borgarnes, a small town about 80 km west from Reykjavik. Inside, on page 4, I see a picture of a cluster of men in orange, and blue suits around a dead and gutted fin whale in a rusty whaling station, an archive photo of the Loftsson hunt in late October, 2006. I read the headline: "One-third to one-half of the whale catch is buried". This very headline initiated a spiral of events last week, which eventually led me here, all the way to Iceland.
Here is some "meat" for your consumption.

Two weeks ago, the Icelandic media reported that  Loftsson dumped 179 tons of whale remains at Sorpur›un Vesturlands hf landfill site, in late October/ early November last year, about  24 km west from Borgarnes. Earlier in 2006, Icelandic Government awarded Loftsson, a commercial quota of nine fin whales. He landed seven, with the total catch estimated at 350 tons. Now, three months later, nearly half of this potentially toxic catch, lies under half a meter of soil, 1.5 meters deep, in an area of 150 square meters.
Reportedly, Hrefna Bryndis Jónsdóttir, the landfill manager, indicated that each approved waste requires documentation of testing, and waste which is not tested is not accepted to the landfill. Ms. Hrefna Bryndis Jónsdóttir, also stated that the whale scraps were tested for toxicity, albeit not by the waste facility. Interestingly not even the Icelandic Marine Research Institute was aware of such tests. In addition, this testing claim cannot be sustained because the whale meat Loftsson extracted, is still in freezers, and still awaiting toxicity tests results. Marine Research Institute did not test the whales because Loftsson's hunt was commercial and not  "scientific".The government is not taking responsibility. Not surprisingly, access for sampling at the landfill was denied.

It is  indeed sad that a "sustainable" whale hunt would necessitate dumping nearly half the whale catch. In addition, lack of testing before dumping, could potentially become hazardous as waste drainage seeps into the ground contaminating soil and groundwater. More importantly however, whale meat is often toxic, particularly the blubber, and should not be consumed. According to Paul Johnson from University of Exeter, "The levels of toxic chemicals found in many baleen whales exceed levels consistent with good food standards, so they should not be eaten.  It is quite possible" he adds "that (given the endocrine disrupting activities of many persistent chemicals) subtle effects may be taking place on human reproductive or immune functions".

The Norwegians for example, dump blubber out to sea because of toxicity, but also because they know there is no demand for whale products (Japan does not want to import from either Norway nor Iceland).
Greenpeace press conference today revealed, that the estimated product yield from the whales, was not 100 tons as the media reports initially suggested, but in fact at least double that, about 200 tons. The blubber was not  disposed of at the landfill, even though the whaling ship captain admitted that some of the whales are "not suitable for human consumption" . Two Icelandic national television channels, caught the captain, Sigur›ur Njálsson, saying that some of the landed whales are "not good enough for the home market".

A journalist from a national television station, RUV, stated that "some of the whale meat intended for export to Japan is "too rough" for the local market and not suitable for consumption, but the Japanese like it like that".
So, apparently, the Japanese eat degenerating and potentially toxic whales, half the 2006 catch is left to rotting at a dump site, and despite lack of market demand for whale products, 200 tons of meat and blubber await export to Japan.

In the meantime, the Japanese government gets ready for yet another hunt in the Southern Oceans whale sanctuary, having 4,400 tons of whale meat surplus already. It just does not make sense, and based on the facts, whaling seems meaningless. Loftsson's intention to export whale products, including blubber, may carry gravely negative consequences for Iceland and its international markets, not to mention potential health risks for the Japanese consumers. Lets face the facts. Whaling will never pay off!

Lack of adequate domestic market, and Convention on International Trade of Endangered Species (CITES) ban on imports and exports of whale products (where Iceland declared a number of reservations, including not only fin and minke whales but also blue whales) should be enough to stop this practice. A Greenpeace article published in June, 2006, indicated  there is "so much unwanted whale meat that it's being sold as doggie treats, and an expanded school lunch program is in the works - with the hope of getting Japanese kids used to eating it". Whaling in Norway is experiencing a similar plunge in market demand, and Icelandic whale market is on its way to extinction.

There are still many more questions to ask, while the global community awaits the answers. But after a few conversations I had with the locals, I can say this: Icelanders and the government may always support whaling in principle, due to their cultural tradition of utilising whale resources, but increasingly they view whaling as unnecessary. Many individuals on the domestic arena question Loftsson's stubborn and greedy hunt, asking "Why is he doing that? We just don't understand". So when is Iceland going to get it's act together, listen to domestic and global outcries, and stop whaling? Greenpeace press conference today in Reykjavik focused on the whale meat food market. "Both Iceland and Japan continue to whale in the face of domestic and international opposition, even though there is no scientific, economic or environmental justification for it" said Frode Pleym,Greenpeace Oceans Campaigner. "Iceland claims their commercial whaling is sustainable – but how can they justify it when they are hunting endangered species, without domestic demand, and over-supply of whale products in Japan?" added Pleym. 

It is not going to be an easy road to success though. I have recently read an Iceland Review interview with Einar Oddur Kristjansson, chairman of Iceland's council for tourism, who has very eccentric plans of including whaling in the Icelandic tourism plans. His lack of understanding of whaling, and the whale meat market demand in particular, should create concern for those who work in the tourism sector. When asked if he sees whale and whale watching co-existing in Iceland, he stated: "When I am traveling abroad I want to see something different and exotic, something I have not seen before. Why should a tourist coming to Iceland not want to see both [whaling and whale watching]? If I was in that position, I would like to see both".

With attitudes like this one, it will take some time to put a complete stop to whaling. Does Mr. Chairman really believe that anyone coming to Iceland wants to see blood and harpoons shot into creatures living in the water? I think tourists have a better sense of attractions to see! Lack of market demand and environmental mismanagement will eventually kill-out the whaling.
© Iwona Roman Jan 23rd 2007

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