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Cod logic - scientific fish stock control or economic suicide?

This week, Iceland killed its first whale in 14 years. The government calls it a 'scientific' way to control fish stocks - others call it economic suicide

Paul Brown

22nd August 2003

The Guardian

An estimated 43,000 minke whales are believed to live in Icelandic waters, eating 2m tonnes of fish and shrimps every year. So what does it matter if 38 whales are killed?
That is the official line of Iceland's Ministry of Fisheries, which says it needs to know how many fish, and of what sort, whales eat in order to control and protect its largest single source of income, the cod. The ministry is involved in scientific research, not whaling for the meat, although this will be eaten so as not to be wasted.

Put that way, "scientific whaling" seems logical. But what about the wider picture for this small nation resuming what many see as a barbaric practice: killing the world's largest charismatic mammals.

For a start, anti-whaling groups do not believe the figures given for the number of whales or the quantity of fish they eat, and still believe that all whales need protection. Apart from that, the decision to resume whaling has baffled many people who see it as a short route to economic suicide. It is only 14 years ago that Iceland stopped whaling, after the first successful international consumer boycott. Millions of people simply stopped buying Icelandic products, nearly all fish. Environment groups, particularly Greenpeace, then enormously powerful, successfully lobbied fish importers, who decided to buy from other sources.

Then, as now, the nations that eat most Icelandic fish - the UK, Germany and the US - have the strongest anti-whaling stance, and even larger numbers of consumers than before belong to environment and animal welfare groups opposed to whaling. Once the anti-Icelandic bandwagon starts rolling, the argument goes, Iceland will soon feel the economic pinch.

Things might not be quite so simple this time, however. The UK imported 12,000 tonnes of Icelandic fish last year and it would not be easy to find alternative supplies. Without Icelandic supplies, fish and chip shops would be hard put to stay in business, since North Sea catches of cod and haddock continue to plummet. Norway, another whaling nation, and New Zealand, strongly opposed to whaling but with finite stocks, are the only other alternative sources of supply.

But fish boycotts are not the only thing to which Iceland is vulnerable. In the last 14 years whale watching has become one of Iceland's booming industries. In a country with only 275,000 people, one in four visitors, or 62,052 people, came to whale watch last year. This brings in 5m a year to the economy and, during the summer, the industry employs 100 people mainly in remote corners of the country where it is too cold to grow crops and there are few other ways to earn a living. This industry, which has much potential for expansion, fears for its future.

So what are the Icelandic people up to? According to the government, 70% of them support the decision to resume whaling. They appear to have swallowed, hook, line and sinker the argument that it may be necessary to control the minke whale stocks to safeguard cod - even though fishery protection measures have already been reasonably successful.

The same argument was used to justify resuming commercial whaling in Norway, although overfishing with modern industrial boats seemed a much more likely reason for the original loss of stocks. In the North Sea, where there are virtually no whales, the only reason for loss of stocks seems to be human activity.

But there is a second argument. Iceland, like Norway, is a recently independent country. Iceland, which next year is to celebrate 50 years as a republic, feels, like Norway, that it does not like to be told by the international community what it can and cannot do within its own 200-mile limit. Remember the bitterness of the cod war with the UK? Curiously, Norway and Iceland also share this trait with the Japanese, who also continue to whale against the wishes of most of their big trading partners. In that part of the world, to stop whaling would involve a blow to the national pride which is politically unacceptable.

All would seem set for a battle of wills between the world's strongest environmental groups and one of the world's smallest but most pugnacious of nations.

But the Icelandic case may have one fatal weakness. Who is going to eat the whales? Only one restaurant in Iceland routinely sells whale and until this week when the first of 38 minkes was killed it was not readily available in the shops. As in Norway, where the public has lost the taste for whale, the meat is hard to sell and the blubber is now thrown back into the sea.

The obvious answer is to sell it Japan, which is possible, despite an international ban on sales of whale meat. Both Japan and Iceland have "entered a reservation" on the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species enabling trade to continue between the two countries.

The problem with this, as Norway has already found, is that levels of pollution in minke meat and blubber make Japanese health officials unwilling to import it. Their own whale killing is done mainly in Antarctic waters and does not suffer from the same level of industrial chemicals in the body fat.

Iceland has yet to do the tests, but if the minke population in Icelandic waters mirrors the results in Norway then the exports might be difficult. The best bet of the Environment Investigation Agency is that Iceland will be left with an embarrassing lot of unsold minke whale meat on its hands and the "real reason" for killing whales, to start an export trade, will be exposed as a non-starter.

It would be a strange irony if man's pollution of the planet were instrumental in saving the whale.