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International Marine Mammal Project

Whalewatching takes off in Iceland

International Marine Mammal Project

Husavik, a fishing community of 2,500 inhabitants on the northeast coast of Iceland, was until recently known only for a beautiful wooden church built in 1907. But in the last five years Husavik has become the whale watching capital of Europe, taking almost 23,000 tourists out to see the whales in our beautiful bay.

Even though whale watching is the fastest growing sector of the Icelandic tourist industry, with over 60,000 tourists last year, there is still a constant call for the resumption of whaling by old time whalers and a number of Parliament members. In 2001 and again this year, Iceland tried and failed to get into the International Whaling Commission (IWC) with a reservation to the Whaling Moratorium set in 1983. Approval of the full membership of the IWC would be needed to resume whaling in Iceland. The ban on trade of whale products could only be lifted by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), not by IWC.

The most common pro-whaling argument in Iceland is that whales may deplete fish stocks once their numbers recover. Scientists at Iceland's Marine Research Institute (MRI) claim that minke whales consume 1 million tons of small fish and krill, and several thousand tons of cod every year in the mid-North Atlantic. The MRI proposes that 250 minke whales and 100 fin whales should be killed every year.

Johann Sigurjónsson, manager of the MRI, stated last year that taking 250 minke whales would not have any effect on the stock of minke whales in the mid-North Atlantic Ocean, as they have estimated the stock to be 58-70,000 animals. "It is like a drop in the ocean," Sigurjónsson said.

If taking 250 minkes is not going to have any negative effect on minke whale stocks around Iceland, how can they claim it is going to increase the annual cod catch?

There are now 12 Icelandic companies offering regular whale watching trips during the summer. These companies are located in nine different towns and villages around the island. The growth of the whale watching business has indirectly provided a strong argument against the popular attitude toward Iceland's resumption of whaling as it is now providing a lot of new jobs and revenue for the local communities around the island and also for the economy of Iceland in general.

The direct value of whalewatching is estimated at $8 million. Direct value includes costs for such items as air travel, bus transport, car hire, lodging, dining, gasoline, whalewatching excursions and souvenirs. According to the Institution for Economics in Iceland, indirect revenue, incurred by other services provided for the tourists by private companies and the public sector, brings the total revenue of whalewatching in Iceland to US$13 million.

Clearly, the value of whalewatching to the Icelandic economy means that whalewatching needs to be taken into serious consideration by the government. However, many politicians are not willing to consider the value of whalewatching when arguing for resumption of whaling.

The direct value of the growing whale-watching industry in Iceland is now twice that of whaling during the "scientific" whaling years (1986-1989), and more than half the value that whaling industry contributed to the Icelandic economy from 1950 to 1980, when whaling was at its peak.

Whalewatching also helps build a positive reputation for Iceland as a "nature destination." Whaling will without a doubt damage this image. According to the visitor survey from the Icelandic Tourist Board in 2001, over 80 percent of all tourists decide to travel to Iceland to enjoy nature. Another visitor survey indicates that 70 percent of tourists would condemn Iceland's whaling activities; 40 percent would not return to Iceland if whaling is resumed.

When scientists, politicians, fishermen and some members of the Icelandic media claim that whales need to be used just like any other resource, they forget that whales are already being used. Whalewatching is a positive use. Each year the whales get more familiar with the whalewatching boats and take an interest in them, providing a deeper experience for the tourist.

Still, support for resumption of whaling is high at the moment. Local surveys tell us that 70-80 percent of Icelanders support the resumption of whaling. I feel that the results reflect national pride, and are a statement of independence rather than an expression of the true will to resume whaling. A majority of Icelanders believe that whales are a problem for the fisheries and should be culled, a position shown to be untenable.

If whaling is resumed, it could devastate whalewatching in Iceland. Minke whales are the prime target for the whalers but they are also the most important whales for whalewatching in many places. There is no evidence that minke whaling and whalewatching can coexist as the scientists of the MRI and many politicians have been claiming. The friendly minkes would be the first to be killed as they often approach boats. Whaling could therefore directly damage many years of friendly encounters with the minke whales around Iceland in the future.

The Husavik Whale Centre is currently working towards the goal of opening a new educational whale center in a much larger building than the one we have using for the last four years. Through continued lobbying and cooperation with government and local authorities and local businesses I have managed to gather over $175,000 to renovate the building and I am continuing my efforts to raise funds to open the new exhibition.

The changes in attitude that I have seen during the past five years I have been living in Husavik are unbelievable. I feel it is an achievement we all can be proud of and an example of how positive use of whales and cooperation with local authorities and companies can benefit the remote communities in the Arctic region.

Asbjorn Bjorgvinsson Asbjorn Bjorgvinsson is director of the Husavik Whale Centre.


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