Whale Of A Debate In Iceland

Guide Einar Orn Einarsson keeps watch for whales high above the visiting whale watchers aboard the "Elding I" in the North Atlantic a few miles off Reykjavik, Iceland, May 11, 2003.
Only the gentle hum of the engines and the whistling North Atlantic wind break the silence aboard the Elding I as several dozen pairs of eyes eagerly scan the waters around the whale boat.

The hunters wait patiently, searching out their prey while snuggled in warm body suits to stave off the chill whipping off the sea a few miles out from Reykjavik.

Then comes a loud cry from guide Einar Orn Einarsson, positioned up on a watchtower: "Minke whale at 11 o'clock!" The alert prompts a stampede to the bow, followed by jostling for a prime position.

But these whale hunters are armed with cameras, not harpoons.

They represent what many Icelanders see as a crossroads for their island nation. Should they focus on tourism-related aspects of the environment, or join Japan and Norway in pushing to resume traditional whale hunts over strong international sentiment for protecting the huge animals?

In a move that has outraged conservationist groups, Iceland's government has submitted a proposal to the International Whaling Commission to resume limited hunting of northern minkes and endangered fin and sei whales.

The government says its proposed program of scientific research whaling is necessary to gauge the impact of whale herds on fisheries stocks and provide data on the mammals' migration patterns and population trends.

But the Tourist Industry Association is warning that hunting will harm the growing whale-watching business, which it says creates "a very positive image for Iceland" and provides considerable income.

And animal rights groups like the International Fund for Animal Welfare worry resuming whale hunting for scientific research could lead to a revival of commerical whale-hunting.

More than 277,000 people visited Iceland in 2001 — almost equaling the island's population of 280,000 — and the tourist association estimates a third of the tourists went whale watching.

Around a dozen whale-watching firms have sprung up in Iceland over the past decade, generating around $8.5 million in revenue in 2001, the tourism association says. Commercial whaling brought in $3 million-$4 million annually between 1986 and 1989, when hunts were stopped.

"We are afraid of what hunting will do to our business," Vignir Sigursveinsson, operating manager of the tour firm Elding Adventures, says while at the helm of the Elding I.

"On our best days we can stop the engines like now and the whales come right up to us, not afraid. What happens when the boats they see become hunters again?"

Icelanders have been hunting whales since the days of the Vikings, but stopped in 1989 under an international moratorium on commercial hunts. The country continued to observe the moratorium after quitting the whaling commission a decade ago. But when Iceland rejoined in October, the government said it would not be bound by the moratorium after 2006.

Minke whale meat is still readily available at some of the island's restaurants, from whales caught in fishermen's nets, and many Icelanders staunchly defend the country's right to resume hunts.

Moored just yards from the Elding I's berth at Reykjavik's old harbor, are four imposing black boats — Hvalur (Whale) 7, 8, 9 and 10.

The fleet belonging to whale hunting firm Hvalur Hf. has been tied up at the dock since 1989, but chief executive Kristjan Loftsson has had them repainted each year while waiting for a lifting of the hunting ban.

Loftsson, who believes whales need to be culled to preserve fishing stocks, has no qualms about killing the mammals, and he has little sympathy for the tourism operators.

"If you do the arithmetic, whaling has always been a viable industry from the 1940s while many whale watchers have gone in and out of business," he said.

"Also, there were thousands of tourists who visited the whaling plant in Harfnarfjordur where the whole carcasses were brought onshore. When you go out watching on the boat, you hardly see the back of the whale. You might as well go to an aquarium."

Iceland is proposing to catch 100 fin, 50 sei and 100 northern minke whales a year for research, and the government makes no secret of its wish to resume full commercial whaling.

"We cannot accept that we should not be allowed to utilize this important marine resource like we harvest other resources in the sea," said Geir H. Haarde, the finance minister. "I find the thought that these animals in some way are holier than other mammals to be completely irrational unless you are a vegetarian."

The whaling commission estimates there are 27,700-82,000 fin whales in the entire North Atlantic and 6,100-17,700 sei whales and 21,600-31,400 northern minke whales in the central North Atlantic. That is more than enough to justify Iceland's proposed catch, says the Marine Research Institute in Reykjavik.

The commission is expected to consider the proposal at a weeklong meeting beginning June 16 in Berlin but that is simply a formality. The body has no authority to restrict research whaling.

Worries about tourist reaction seemed borne out in talks with the customers on the Elding I.

"I didn't come to Iceland to eat whales. I came to Iceland to see the whales out in the ocean," said Sandra Schmidt, 51, a legal secretary from Vernen, British Columbia.

"The main reason people come here is to see the whales, the amazing nature and other wildlife. If they take that away, I don't think as many people would come."