Cetacean Society International

Whales Alive!

Vol. VII No. 1 January 1998

Report from Iceland

From a report by Dr. Ole Lindquist, CSI's Iceland Representative

Public awareness about environmental issues has developed rapidly here in Iceland. Whale watching is booming (11 operators and ca. 9,700 whale watchers in 1996; 13 operators with 20,550 whale watchers in 1997). Whale watching has gained such importance that a draft motion was tabled in Parliament in November urging the government to establish proper rules for the operation of whale watching vessels at sea. Since 1990 such draft motions called on the government to resume whaling.

The whaling lobby wishes to jump on whale watching in various ways. A debate on Icelandic State TV in November considered whether whale watching could/should be conducted alongside whaling. The President of the Minke Whalers' Association, Konrad Eggertsson, stressed that there was no contrast between whaling and whale watching, each one in fact supported the other, and that whalers and whale watch operators "should cooperate". Others commented that seeing the flensing of whales, for example, at the whaling station in Hvalfjoerdur could be an additional tourist attraction. The Icelandic tourist and fish export industries are outspoken against the resumption of whaling.

For the first time since the whaling issue became topical about 1978-1979 the main actors in the debate are domestic. The debate has become primarily an Icelandic-Icelandic one, and the whaling lobby no longer thrives on stirring up nationalistic moods against international NGO's and the IWC.

Minke whalers are already active in whale watching on a small scale in certain places and we see the whalers changing tactics to come back into the public debate and political process, to counter those who have come out firmly against the resumption of Icelandic whaling. The whalers clearly aim at undermining the ethical aspect of whale watching while, at the same time, trying to make it an indirect or direct vehicle for whaling.

Keiko: Representatives from the US "Free Willy Keiko Foundation" visited Iceland recently to explore the possibility of repatriating the orca Keiko ("Free Willy"), captured in Iceland probably in 1979. The proposal for putting Keiko into a sea pen near Eskifjoerdur in the Eastfjords for eventual release into the ocean has generally received much more positive response than any informed person would have expected compared with earlier reactions to suggestions of this kind. This may also be taken as a rapidly changing attitude to public awareness of the benefits which Iceland may gain from a high international profile in environmental issues. Prime Minister David Oddsson publicly expressed the opinion that the proposal should be considered with an open mind. Mr. Johann Sigurjonsson, senior cetologist at the Marine Research Institute and currently ambassador for fisheries and whaling negotiations, is against the return of Keiko. It could be a positive advertisement for Iceland abroad, and a negative effect on the image of Iceland if the proposed return were rejected out of hand. The chairman of the Eskifjoerdur town council said that the town council approved of it under the condition that conditions set by authorities be met. The tourist industry also supports the return of Keiko. On 5 December, ‘Morgunbladid' ran an editorial under the heading "Keiko home" which concludes: "The return of Keiko would be a delightful adventure while it would be interesting to see how he would fare in his home tracts. Hard arguments against it have not been put forward. If this does not change, Keiko should be allowed to return home."

It is interesting to notice how Icelanders are shedding old attitudes in a broad range of environmental issues and beginning to see themselves and Icelandic issues as part of global issues and processes. Each of these aspects are playing with the others, indirectly supporting them. Furthermore, Icelanders are beginning to understand that cetaceans can be utilized without being hunted. Hitherto, the powerful industry has been unchecked in all respects; now the tourist industry and the general public in Iceland, on the one hand, and the international development in emission and pollution issues, on the other, forces the Icelandic authorities to respond with positive actions.

Go to next article: More On Keiko or: Table of Contents.

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