Icelandic Fishing Industry Suffers from a Split Personality

Its fisheries quota is an international model, but the country continues to engage in commercial whaling

When the banking system and real estate market in Iceland melted down in 2008, the tiny Nordic country was able to fall back on the natural resource that has sustained its people and its economy for centuries: fishing.

Iceland whalePhoto by Flickr user LinagretteUntil 2011, Iceland was catching more than 100 endangered fin whales per year. The meat is sold
primarily to Japan.

Fishing, mostly of cod, herring and mackerel, accounts for a quarter of the island nation’s GDP. The Icelanders guard their territorial waters closely (one reason for a current trade spat with the EU) and they take special care to ensure that they aren’t overharvesting their fish stocks. In 1995 the country established a fisheries quota that limits the total catch to 25 percent of a species’ estimated stock. Environmentalists have highlighted the country as an example of what a sustainable fishing industry can look like.

But other headlines inflict a black eye on Iceland’s otherwise happy face of environmentalism. While most boats in Reykjavik’s harbor are devoted to either cod fishing or tourism, including whale-watching tours, at least one of them targets whales with a harpoon.

It may seem like an incredible conflict for whale watching tours to depart alongside a hunting vessel, but to Icelanders it registers mostly as a non-issue. Protests against whaling are characterized by locals as foreigners dressed in whale costumes and causing much ado about nothing. (People of the Faroe Islands, where pilot whale hunting is an ancient tradition, feel similarly. Read “Heart of Darkness,” our special report about why whale hunts continue in the islands.)

The whaling industry is small fry within Iceland’s fishing complex. “Iceland has a very unique asset. It’s the Saudi Arabia of fishing,” says Ambassador Charles E. Cobb, 76, the ambassador to Iceland from 1989 to 1992. “As the US Ambassador, I had to articulate the US policy against whaling. And I did. Secretly I told my Icelandic friends that I respected Iceland’s view,” he told me over the phone.

Cobb says that Iceland wanted to conduct scientific studies on the minke whale to determine if it was causing declines in the cod stocks, the country’s most important fishery. In 1986, Iceland stopped commercial whaling when the International Whaling Commission’s ban came into affect. But it withdrew from the IWC in 1992, and in 2006 rejoined the IWC as the only nation with a special and controversial provision called “whaling under reservation,” meaning that it reserves the right to conduct “sustainable” whaling.

Until 2011, Iceland was catching more than 100 endangered fin whales per year. The meat is sold primarily to Japan. No fin whales were reported caught in 2011, due mostly to the tsunami disaster in Japan. Hunting of fin whales is expected to return soon, as Iceland’s Marine Research Institute has set a 2013 quota of 154 fin whales, calling this amount “sustainable and precautionary.” Fin whales are the world’s second longest, and the population in the North Atlantic is estimated at 30,000 by the IWC.

Iceland reported a total catch of 58 common, or northern minke whales in 2011. The quota was set at 229 whales for 2013. These medium-sized whales are relatively abundant, on the order of 174,000 in the North Atlantic, according to the IWC, and are listed as a species of “least concern” by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. Menus including whale (and puffin) meat are prominently advertised by restaurants in Reykjavik. As tourism is a growing sector in Iceland, this type of “adventure eating” may be fueling a perverse demand for whale meat.

Whale meat is obtainable in supermarkets, but isn’t commonly served at home. “I’ve only eaten it one time in my entire life,” says Eggert Krusfransson, 23, a tour guide with Lucky Troll Travel in eastern Iceland. He says that minke whales secrete hormones when hunted that make the meat unpalatable. Whale meat is also known to have high levels of mercury.

In 2011, following pressure from the United States, Iceland removed whale meat from its duty free shops. Stronger pressure may come from the anti-whaling policies of the European Union, as Iceland has been actively pursuing entry into the EU.

But the big economic question is how Iceland will revise its fishing rules, because the EU requires a “common” fishery for all nations, whereas Iceland allows only Icelandic vessels within its waters. According to Ambassador Cobb, the Icelanders will protect their natural resources fiercely. “They have the best fishing grounds in the world, so they don’t want other countries there.”

As for whale hunting, a losing tradition in its death throes and trying to reassert itself, Icelanders should put it to rest.

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