Iceland is a study in contrasts. Known as the "land of fire and ice," its lava fields, glaciers and craggy, mountain-ringed fjords make the country one of the top eco-tourism destinations in the world. A half-million tourists visited Iceland in 2010, an impressive number given that the country’s population is only 300,000.
The ocean around Iceland teems with life and is home to a wide variety of ocean fauna, including 23 species of whales and dolphins. Since the first whale watch tours in Iceland were offered in 1991, Iceland’s whale watch industry has had one of the sector’s highest growth rates. More than a dozen companies offer visitors an opportunity to see minke and humpback whales, as well as dolphins. Off shore, fin whales, sperm whales, and even the majestic blue whale can be found.
The rapid rise of whale watching in Iceland coincided with the country’s decision to stop whaling in 1990. In 1992, Iceland also withdrew from the International Whaling Commission (IWC). This latter move, coupled with the earlier suspension of commercial whaling and rise in whale watching, led some to conclude that Iceland had abandoned efforts to defend its whaling industry and had decided instead to embrace the economic benefits of living whales.
Unfortunately, Iceland’s whaling industry had not given up. The first inkling of trouble came in 2000, when Iceland joined the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), but took a reservation to the Appendix I listing of whale species - signaling its intent to restart whaling and international trade in whale meat. In 2002, Iceland rejoined the IWC, announcing that whaling would resume under a reservation to the whaling moratorium.
A year later, after over 13 years without whaling, the Icelandic government issued whaling quotas. The first minke whale was killed in August 2003. Quotas for the endangered fin whale followed in 2006, and the industry was “off and hunting” on a scale not seen in the northwest Atlantic for decades. Iceland’s 2010 body count was the highest in decades, with 148 fin and 60 minke whales killed.
With so much whale meat and blubber on hand, Iceland ramped up its international trade. Since 2006, it has exported more than 1,500 tons of whale meat and other products, mainly to Japan. In addition to exports, the minke whaling industry endeavored to increase domestic sales. The Hrefnuveiðimenn company began marketing minke whale meat in trendy, aesthetically inviting, vacuum-sealed packages. Recipes by well-known Icelandic chefs were featured in radio, television and print ads, and the meat was offered to restaurants and supermarkets at low cost to encourage sales.
According to the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society (WDCS), these efforts appear to have paid off. More than 100 restaurants, shops and supermarkets around Iceland sold whale meat in 2010 compared to only 50 in 2007. As domestic availability increased, tourists were also targeted.
In autumn 2011, representatives of AWI and WDCS discovered meat from minke whales - who are listed on CITES Appendix I - on sale at the “Inspired by Iceland” dutyfree store in the departure area of Keflavik International Airport. Hrefnuveiðimenn whale products were openly offered for sale. No information was available explaining that whale meat is banned from international trade for travelers from all countries save those few prowhaling countries such as Norway and Japan which have - like Iceland - lodged a reservation to the CITES whale listings. Store employees were captured on video telling U.S. citizens that they could legally import the product into the United States with a veterinary certificate stating that the product was Icelandic livestock, and free from hoof-and-mouth disease!
Additional research revealed that the shop had been selling the whale meat to tourists since July. The Inspired by Iceland airport store is owned by “10-11,” a prominent Icelandic supermarket chain. According to the company’s CEO, Árni Pétur Jónsson, the minke meat had been one of its best selling items over the summer.
AWI and WDCS urgently shared their findings with the U.S. and UK governments, and then with the media. The news went viral, and caught the attention of the Icelandic media when both the UK Foreign Office and the U.S. Department of State posted travel advisories warning travelers that citizens of the UK and U.S. faced possible imprisonment or hefty fines if they brought home whale meat.
Within days of these warnings, the 10-11 company removed the minke whale meat from the airport shop. CEO Jónsson said that the decision had been a commercial one, “as the issue became hot in a very short time and we have been in receipt of emails from a number of travel agents who were indirectly threatening that they would try to avoid Iceland.” Despite this clear victory, whale products remain on sale to tourists in supermarkets throughout Iceland with nary a warning about the illegality of exports.
The sharp contrasts that define Iceland are obvious in its relationship with whales. Tourists board whale watching boats in Reykjavik harbor less than fifteen feet from harpoonmounted fin whaling vessels. Then, after spending hours enjoying the spectacle of whales in the wild, whale watchers walk off the pier and pass by numerous restaurants serving whale meat. Shockingly, according to a 2009 study by the University of Iceland and the Elding Whale Watch company, though 76 percent of those surveyed who participated in a whale watch indicated opposition to whaling, 19 percent said they had tried whale meat, and others said they would do so simply out of curiosity.
According to the Icelandic Whale Watch Association (IceWhale) and the Icelandic Travel Industry Association (SAF), the whaling industry is having a negative impact on their industry. The number of tourists opting to go on a whale watch dropped 10 percent from 2009 to 2010. To make matters worse, the Hrefnuveiðimenn company is hoping to offer “whaling” watching tours in summer 2012.
Iceland is a beautiful country with a rich history and spectacular land and seascapes. Unfortunately, its ongoing slaughter of whales diminishes its attractiveness to those who care about whales. For those who do visit Iceland, enjoy the live whales but don’t contribute to cruelty by consuming whale meat or other whale products.
The warning on the U.S. State Department website reads: “All persons are barred from importing whale meat to the U.S. Even though whale meat is sold throughout Iceland, the Marine Mammal Protection Act makes it illegal to bring back whale meat into the U.S. Any importation of whale meat to the U.S. will result in the seizure of the goods and possible criminal prosecution. Penalties include jail time and fines of up to $10,000.”