Whaling undermines whale watching in Iceland

Posted on 01 April 2007

Whaling in Iceland presents a significant threat to the country’s highly profitable and popular whale watching industry. Asbjörn Björgvinsson, chairman of the Icelandic Whale Watching Association and Manager for the Húsavík Whale Museum, reports.
After a 21-year international moratorium, Iceland’s relatively new fisheries minister, Einar K. Gudfinsson, announced in October 2006 that he had decided to allow the resumption of commercial whaling. This hunt included a quota of nine fin whales, a species listed as threatened in the World Conservation Union’s (IUCN) Red List of Endangered Species.

Iceland has not engaged in commercial whaling since the International Whaling Commission (IWC) moratorium began in 1985. The government has however permitted whaling under its ‘scientific whaling’ programme, from 1985 to 1989 and then from 2003 to the present, in accordance with article eight of the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling.

Meanwhile, Icelanders have found a sustainable and much more profitable way to benefit from the whale stocks around Iceland – whale watching. This activity has rapidly become one of the most popular aspects of tourism in Iceland.

The country’s whale watching industry has grown enormously from only a few hundred customers in the early 1990s, to serving more than 89,000 visitors in 2006. With its rapid growth and especially its contributions to the economies of small coastal communities in addition to the overall Icelandic economy, the whale watching business has created an entirely new dimension within Icelandic tourism.

Despite the success of this industry (which is completely dependent on having access to whales that are not scared off by boats) completely dependent upon having access to whales that are not scared off by boats in coastal waters, the Icelandic government decided to permit the resumption of scientific whaling in August 2003 and commercial whaling in October 2006. The large and growing tourism industry in Iceland, along with nature conservation organisations and many Icelanders, believes these hunts are not only unnecessary and wasteful – given the small market for whale products – but also that they seriously undermine the emerging whale watching business and damage Iceland’s image and reputation.

Many politicians in Iceland have not considered the economic importance of whale watching when making decisions on the whaling issue. The revenue from whale watching is already almost as high as the contribution of commercial whaling during its peak from 1950 to 1980. As there is currently only a very limited domestic market for whale meat, and no international market, it is not expected that the value of the current whale hunt will ever reach previous levels.

Erich Hoyt, senior research fellow with the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society, recently conducted an economic analysis of the whale watching industry in Iceland. Hoyt says: “Whale watching is actually far more valuable to the Icelandic economy than whaling. In 2006, 89,000 whale watchers spent an estimated US$18 million on their whale watching trips, with a further US$29.6 million in terms of total tourism expenditures: a massive boost to the Icelandic economy.

“The turnover from whaling is meagre by comparison: a dead minke whale currently fetches around US$10,500 (down from US$13,000 two years ago).” This is if it can be sold at all.

According to the official policy of Iceland’s government , all natural resources in the ocean that are utilised must be done so in a sustainable way. Sustainability is defined by three main criteria: it must take into account the economic value, social effects, and the resource base.

Whaling cannot be defined as a sustainable industry in Iceland at this point. There are no economic benefits from whaling as there are no markets for the products. Whaling is also damaging Iceland’s image around the world as a nature destination, and thus is also damaging businesses and activities that currently flourish due to this image.

According to Hoyt some UK tour operators claim that bookings have dropped by around 25 percent because of the recent resumption of commercial whaling. He says: “It is likely that without whaling, whale watching tourism would be even more valuable to the Icelandic economy.”

Whaling may also have a serious impact on Iceland’s reputation in connection with the larger issues of conservation and sustainable management of living marine resources.

It’s hard to find any positive social effects from whaling, while whale watching on the other hand has provided many new jobs and created new businesses all around Iceland, such as new guesthouses, hotels, restaurants, museums, and tourist handicraft centres.

It is time that politicians and decision makers in Iceland, as well as the general public, understand that the reduction of Iceland’s whale population by 200 minke whales each year will neither save Icelandic fish stocks nor rebalance the marine ecosystems in Iceland. What is certain, however, is that it will seriously damage the country’s profitable, growing, and sustainable whale watching and larger tourism industries.

Asbjörn (Abbi) Björgvinsson Chairman of the Icelandic Whale Watching Association Manager of the Husavik Whale Museum
A humpback whale breaches before a boatload of whale watchers. Skjálfandi Bay, North Iceland
© Húsavík Whale Museum