Whaling: An internal outrage

A resumption of whaling in and around Iceland provokes a heated exchange of words around Europe...

Iceland has been causing a stir in the press, and not for the reasons that have become common, as a modern, cosmopolitan, über-trendy and forward-thinking society.

It is now an apparently barbaric and backward country with the temerity to hunt whales commercially.

This sort of story undoubtedly makes for good headlines but can it really be described as an international outrage?

Since Iceland’s declaration to resume whaling there has been a perceptible shift in public opinion in Iceland. Despite a poll suggesting in excess of 70% of Icelanders aged 16-75 are in favour of sustainable whaling many seem to be angered by the suddenness of the announcement and the apparent ill preparation. This anger certainly appears to be fuelled in some measure by the notion that the world is turning against Iceland and there will be severe long term damage to Iceland’s international reputation.

The French last year announced that they will join forces with 24 other countries to formally raise their objections. Who are these other countries? Political heavyweights the United States, Germany, Britain and Italy were part of the initiative, as were South Africa, Brazil, Argentina, and long-time eco-warrior New Zealand, according to Reuters.

On the surface that might appear to be international outrage, given the breadth of nations and the strong language involved but in reality the rights and wrongs of commercial whaling are not even being discussed let alone debated abroad. An ambassador or politician can adopt any sort of stance in posturing for the media regarding an issue that does not concern their own country – but if the citizens of their country are not even aware that such posturing is taking place, it can hardly be described as international outrage.

In fact from outside Iceland, if one is even aware of the story, it looks more like scaremongering by environmental groups backed up by headline grabbing politicians.

If there was the global depth of feeling that some statements and press releases would have us believe then surely the issue would be given due prominence in the opinion and editorial pages across the world’s newspapers, but this is patently not the case. Take America as an example, an undoubted political heavyweight government vocally protesting.

In the New York Times the story has merited a mere 214 words so far, simply reporting the announcement of the resumption and then the first kill. The International Herald Tribune, which styles itself as the “World’s Daily Newspaper”, has restricted coverage to a few Associated Press articles, an agency not known for controversial copy and to date there has been nothing in the New York Post.

A foreign correspondent based Washington, Alex Massie, is someone whose job entails reporting on US public opinion. He claimed he’d be “surprised if one American in a hundred is even aware of Iceland's decision to resume whaling.” 

Understandably events in Iraq are more pressing matters. Expanding on the subject Massie said he thought that if the average American was “aware of this they might feel sorry for the whales; but if you told them that Iceland was merely joining Japan and Norway then they would shrug their shoulders and not care very much at all.”

A further search for the story revealed the Washington Post merely included an extract from a Swedish newspaper in a round up of global events but at least they included an editorial so we can digest some opinion:

“The Icelandic fishing authority's permit to hunt 39 whales, including nine red-listed fin whales, can serve as a starting point for a more enlightened debate. The hunting of endangered species is of course deplorable, but there is no reason to outlaw all whaling for all time...”

This extract is from Dagens Nyheter, Sweden’s largest daily newspaper. Initial suspicions might be that Scandinavian Sweden would be more likely to give Iceland an easy ride, but the Swedish government is one of the 25 issuing formal objections.

Near total ignorance in the world’s biggest superpower and a call for “enlightened debate” in one of the objecting countries? This is hardly the stuff of international outrage.

A story in the British Guardian suggested the decision has made Iceland an “international pariah” attracting “global condemnation”. A pariah in whose eyes and condemned by whom? Closer inspection of the few British newspaper reports confirms that it is politicians and animal welfare campaigners that are providing the soundbites, and not one of them quotes a source or statistic that can claim to represent the views of the general public. The closest a newspaper came to accurately reflecting UK wide public opinion was the brief couple of sentences the Daily Telegraph deemed necessary:

After 21 years, Iceland broke the global moratorium on whaling when it permitted the killing of an endangered fin whale.
 
Whilst trying to elicit an opinion or quote on the subject from the man in the street for this article it became clear that contrary to what the IAWF and Greenpeace would have you believe, Joe Ordinary does not appear to have strong views on the subject.

Most are in theory opposed to the idea of whale hunting since they have a vague notion that it involves harpoons and much spilling of blood, but in practice they admit they would need to know a little more about it before they could form a strong opinion. The bottom line is, with the obvious exception of card carrying animal rights activists, and whisper it quietly most people do not really care.

Ben Bradshaw on the other hand is somebody who does care. “I have called the Icelandic ambassador to my office to explain this decision” he said last week, after describing the resumption as “inexplicable and inexcusable”. Summoning an ambassador is sometimes regarded as quite a serious expression of displeasure in diplomatic circles, but it all depends on who is doing the summoning.

So who is Ben Bradshaw? Not too many people in Britain know, nor care for, the answer to that question either, but he is actually the UK Fisheries Minister.

Despite the fact the ambassador pointed out the evidence that Iceland, “a country with very few natural resources, with a people who cannot forget where they have come from, could be trusted more than most countries to manage sustainability issues”, after the meeting Bradshaw issued another strongly worded statement with further condemnation for the “unnecessary and inexplicable decision” when there was “no rational reason” for killing whales.

When pressed for comment as to why the decision was so irrational a spokesman for Mr Bradshaw and the Department of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) claimed it was irrational because it was economically unviable and the whale stocks were not sustainable.

He specifically drew attention to the Icelandic’s government statement that "the Icelandic economy is overwhelmingly dependent on the utilisation of living marine resources", as if this was some sort of banal nonsense considering the demand for whale meat, whereas any Icelandic citizen will no doubt agree wholeheartedly on the economic importance of all marine resources.

On the other hand Bradshaw’s reaction is slightly worrying for British citizens concerned about the marine resources closer to home. Instead of rubbishing Icelandic government statements his time might be better spent studying them more closely, specifically in the area of responsible fisheries and the policy that Icelandic “Government decisions shall show regard for the obligation of each generation to pass on to its descendants a viable environment and for the duty of nations to protect marine life and the ecosystem.” (Declaration of Environmental Considerations, Icelandic Ministry of Fisheries)

This is worth considering since a little over 48 hours after Bradshaw released his first statement on whaling, the International Council for the Exploration for the Seas (ICES) released their annual report on cod stocks in the North Sea. For the fifth year running ICES recommended that the British government impose a total ban on cod fishing in the region because stocks are “overexploited and nearly all depleted.” Ironically enough the report also indicates that cod stocks around Iceland are large and growing.

With this in mind, as a British citizen, I personally would rather our Fisheries Minister did more listening and less lecturing, and most of the UK public he claims to speak for are also more concerned with sustaining cod stocks at home than the whale population in Iceland.

DEFRA’s spokesperson also declined to comment when asked if Bradshaw had considered any cultural or historical factors concerning Icelandic attitudes to whaling. It was put to him that the traditions and long held beliefs of a sea faring nation of fishermen might conceivably lead to ingrained points of view, seemingly irrelevant to others.

The fact that the Icelandic word hvalreki means both “jackpot” and “beached whale” suggests a traditionally colossal importance attached to the business of hunting whales, to even the most ill informed individual. It is thus even more strange that a self proclaimed “friend and admirer of the Icelandic people” should find the decision so inexplicable.

Herein lies the problem. Fish and its relative economic importance. To a British politician the ocean and its inhabitants make headlines from time to time whereas to his Icelandic counterpart marine management is one of the single most important issues. If the very last cod is fished from the depths of the North Sea it is a bit of problem admittedly but it is not the end of the world for us, we’d survive. If the same happens in Iceland’s waters the economy will crumble; Icelandic people are acutely aware that they got where they are today thanks to fish and hence it is not so strange that Icelanders are reluctant to be dictated to as to what they can and cannot do with the resources of the sea.

Put simply, if the sustainable utilisation of living marine resources was as important to Britain as they are to Iceland I daresay the UK Fisheries minister would be someone a little more high profile than Ben Bradshaw and a little less prone to issuing knee-jerk condemnations.

The anti-whaling argument is a helpful one for politicians in many countries – they can pontificate and politicize without any meaningful negative impact on their home turf whilst simultaneously currying favour with the green vote, as well as the environmentalists and animal rights activists who appreciate the rare support. Whatever one thinks of the activists at least they can be commended for being motivated by principles rather than public relations.

Greenpeace is the most internationally well-known and vocal of the organisations conducting ant-whaling campaigns so it is hardly surprising that they are quoted at length in the foreign media whipping up a frenzy. Apart from the ideological opposition to whaling they are most keen to highlight the long term damage the resumption will do to Iceland. At first it all sounds terrible but in reality what exactly are the damages? The arguments against whaling stress that the supposed long term gains are currently intangible and unclear but equally so is the supposed long term damage.

Tourism will suffer apparently. Perhaps in specific areas, but will long-term total tourism revenues fall? Undoubtedly the whale watching tour operators will see some downturn, and indeed cancellations are already being reported, but once the initial fuss dies down will there be a significant drop off in numbers? The increase in the numbers taking whale watching tours are a product of the overall increase in tourists visiting the country. The people most like to cancel a trip to Iceland are those tourists who are coming specifically to watch whales and they represent only 8% of whale watchers according to the industry’s own assumptions. In any case the quality of tourist is as important as the quantity.

If Iceland loses some of the devoted whale tourists who live on packed lunches and continually complain about the price of everything, trying to spend as little money as possible in the country it’s not necessarily such a bad thing in pure economic terms. Far better to target the people who come for the whole package and are happy to spend, spend, spend, preferably in an over priced gourmet restaurant, where they can have the option of spanking cash until their heart’s content. On a juicy whale steak if they so choose.

The anti whaling campaigners repeatedly claim that whale watching is the number one tourist attraction and as such the mutually exclusive practice of whale hunting will cause irreparable trouble. The Iceland Tourist Board’s statistics for 2005 in fact confirm that Nature Observation is overwhelmingly the top activity with about 75% whereas whale watching is listed separately at around 35% some way behind Swimming, Shopping, Museums and Hiking. Whale watching ranks highly on tourism revenue largely as it is so easy to measure in terms of ticket receipts, but this ignores the fact that are no receipts for the most popular attractions such as Geysir, Gulfoss and Þingvellir.

Inevitably the Greenpeace campaign focuses on the tourism revenue from whale watching, encouraging people to cancel trips and boycott Iceland as a holiday destination. Given the issue at hand it is a predictable and relevant campaign but it is presented in such a manner as to suggest to any potential newcomers to Iceland that whale watching is the only worthwhile activity in the country which is frankly insulting to both the land and its people. Does anyone really believe that the majority of tourists come to Iceland to watch whales or is the reality that they watch whales because they have come to Iceland? Iceland has never been particularly popular with Greenpeace but you could argue that the boom in Icelandic tourism, with the subsequent rise in whale watching, has created more whale lovers than Greenpeace has ever managed.

Discover the World is a UK tour operator specialising in Iceland, and as such would have a lot to lose. They should be better placed than most to offer an informed opinion of what might be the long term effects, having operated trips to Iceland for over 20 years and claim to have pioneered the first whale watching holidays. Despite the fact the company is very strongly opposed to the whaling resumption, Alexis Thornely, Marketing & PR executive, says that "it is difficult to foresee the long-term effects, but I doubt it will devastate tourism. Iceland is still a unique and beautiful country with numerous attractions in addition to whale watching, which people will still want to experience.”

Campaigners cite long term economic damage since there is no demand for the meat and as such it is not an economically viable exercise. The lack of demand is the most powerful argument against the resumption, but there is definite logic in the notion that of demand is low because commercial whaling has been banned for a generation. Whilst stocks of meat from scientific whaling remain unsold, it would follow that demand will be easier to stimulate if whaling is operated on a more commercial basis.

Long term either demand will develop or not. If not then sooner or later, commercial whaling will cease since it can only be subsidized for so long. Thus if it is such economic folly, commercial whaling ought to be welcomed by anti whaling campaigners since at the expense of some short term kills the long term result is a complete final cessation. Without full blown commercial resumption the alternative is continual long term “scientific” whaling. Whilst ideologically unpalatable to Greenpeace and IFAW this argument is based on the same laws of supply and demand inherent in the present economic objections.

Many Icelanders appear annoyed that the government has not explained in more detail the reasons behind the resumption, particularly in light of the fact that there appears to be no demand. Given the major doubts about the market it is entirely possible that as far as the Iceland Fisheries Ministry is concerned demand is totally irrelevant and they intend to continue simply as an overall part of their strategy to sustain fish stocks in the region. Greenpeace reject this argument on the grounds that they do not believe cod to form a significant part of the hunted whales’ diet.

Inevitably scientists can also be found to claim that it does. Perhaps the Fisheries Ministry simply does not want to get involved in a never ending argument, believing they should not have to justify their sustenance strategies given their record of relative success as well as their greater level of dependence. It is a truism that the more you attempt justify actions to blindly ideological detractors the more you are questioned by them.

The biggest worry is general long term damage to Iceland’s international reputation but as noted above there is absolutely no ill will abroad from international consumers. People are not going to start boycotting Icelandic products en masse, especially not the fish as we have none of our own left. Your average foreigner is infinitely more concerned with what the Baugur Group are hunting than the whalers. Yes politicians are getting a bit shirty, but that will pass. It is not enough of a domestic vote winner to seriously affect general dealings with Iceland or foreign policy in any way. And of course Iceland has irked the animal rights activists but that is not exactly anything new.

The very notion in Iceland that the country is somehow becoming a global pariah is simply a result of a successful PR campaign by the activists and others with vested interests, elsewhere it is simply not a story. The ambassador to the UK, who would be feeling the feedback more than most, Sverrir Haukur Gunnlaugsson agrees. “The interesting thing in the UK is there has been no reaction to the issue and it has still received only minimal reporting in the broadsheets and popular press. There has certainly been no sign of mass indignation yet” was his reaction to the suggestion of an international outrage.

If irritations at the government’s decision in Iceland are a result of genuine anti-whaling sentiments then that is an entirely understandable viewpoint, but if the growing shift is because of empty Greenpeace threats, that seems more irrational than the decision to go whaling in the first place. Despite the lack of satisfactory explanations from the government as to any long term benefits or the reasons that were behind the announcement one has to assume that they are acting in what they consider are the best interests for the future of Iceland. Even if there is some doubt that they are in fact acting in Iceland’s best interests, there can be no doubt that the majority of vocal opponents care more about the interests of the whales than the Icelanders.

Inevitably the whale watching industry will suffer to some extent, but to be honest they have been shooting fish in a barrel, forgive the expression, for years, and long term the chances are they will continue do so as the numbers of visitors of Iceland continues to rise. The internationally politically correct view is that it is somehow more noble to live in a society that watches whales than hunts them, but whale watching reduces nature to a live exhibition merely for entertainment purposes and financial gain, a practice far less natural than hunting.

If the reality of the globally disinterested reaction is to be considered, Iceland will not suffer long term at all. The fuss is far more of an internal outrage than an international one and many genuine “friends and admirers of Iceland” would be dismayed to see them bullied into accepting the will of others on the strength of inane threats. Tourists will still come to Iceland in their droves because it is an endearingly fascinating country and culture. A big draw is that it is one of the last unspoilt places in the world and that is unlikely to be changed by hunting whales.

Another attraction is the people who are some of last unspoilt characters in the world, infuriatingly stubborn and passionately patriotic about their country, its traditions and its independence, and often splendidly dismissive of ill thought out, politically correct, sentimental nonsense. Long may it continue.