Iceland's whale hunting makes waves with critics

Last week, 23 countries protested Iceland's resumption of whaling for 'scientific purposes.'

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

The fish markets along the Fanne fjord in this western Norwegian town boast magnificent, two-foot-long farm-raised salmon, fillets of fresh cod, and haddock.

And then there's what looks like an extra lean cut of beef lying on the fishmongers' ice. It's minke whale, ready for the broiler or barbecue.

While the US and many other nations condemn whaling, Norway is the one country in the world that continues to hunt them on a commercial basis. Last year, Norway killed more than 600 minkes, most of which were consumed within the country.

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And after a 14-year hiatus, Iceland last month resumed whaling for "scientific purposes," sending its whalers out this year to harvest 38 of the 20- to 35-foot-long minkes off its near-Arctic shores.

Iceland's decision has sparked anew the global controversy over hunting the huge cetaceans. Britain led an international protest by 23 countries last week condemning Iceland's harvesting plans as "unjustified and unnecessary" and a violation of the spirit of a moratorium agreed by the International Whaling Commission (IWC) in June.

Commercial hunting of whales has been outlawed since 1986, because many of the great whale species are endangered. Iceland, which stopped whaling then under international pressure, now says it must control whales to protect fish stocks and fishermen's livelihood. Reykjavik had announced its intention just before the IWC's June annual meeting. There, a resolution calling for a "strengthening of the conservation agenda" passed by a 25 to 20 vote, deepening the divide between whaling and non-whaling nations.

Japan, which kills nearly 700 minkes for "scientific" purposes each year, denounced the resolution and threatened to leave the IWC, charging that the body had strayed from its original mission of creating conditions to allow the sustainable harvest of whales.

Japanese ships take hundreds of whales each year, ostensibly to check on the creatures' health. Critics call this commercial whaling in disguise. After research is done, the whale meat is transported for consumption, which is required by IWC rules.

Antiwhaling organizations argue that whale hunting is an antiquated barbaric practice. "There is absolutely no way to kill a whale humanely, and we believe that on that basis alone, it's time to say goodbye to whaling," says Chris Tuite of the International Fund for Animal Welfare in Yarmouthport, Mass.

Mr. Tuite notes that with the IWC's 1986 ban on most forms of whaling, whale hunting has been increasingly replaced by whale watching - an industry he estimates to be worth more than $1 billion a year worldwide.

But here in Norway, where whales have been hunted for thousands of years, even environmental groups support whaling.

"As long as you can harvest the surplus without reducing the stocks significantly, we think whaling is a good thing," says Marius Holm of the Bellona Foundation in Oslo, one of Norway's most influential environmental groups.

"From an animal-rights perspective, what's the difference between eating whale meat and beef?" asks Rune Frovik, director of the High North Alliance, a pro-whaling group based in the far northern fishing village of Reine. "With agriculture, you're destroying the habitat for wild animals and keeping animals in small cages from the time they are born, so they have never experienced freedom." Whales, by contrast, live wild in the sea until the day they are harvested, he notes.

Norway argues that its commercial hunts are legal because it objected to the 1986 ban.

Many Norwegians say that the antiwhaling movement in other industrialized countries is based on emotion, rather than scientific fact. "Most people when they get food they go to the supermarket and find it wrapped up in plastic, they don't see the kill," says Halvard Johansen, deputy director general of Norway's Ministry of Fisheries. "Then they see pictures of a whale being slaughtered and it's an unusual and shocking sight for them."

Proponents say there is ample evidence that Norway's whale harvest will do no long-term damage to the minke population.

Norway, Iceland, and Japan would all like to hunt other species, like sei, humpback, and fin whales, if their populations can eventually be shown to have recovered from past whaling.

Critics note that the industry has a poor conservation record. Many species including blue, fin, right, sperm, and humpback whales were hunted to the verge of extinction during the 19th and 20th centuries, and Norway and Japan played central roles in the destruction of Antarctica's once bountiful whale populations.

Nor is the science of whale management up to snuff, says Kate O'Connell, US representative of the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society, based in London, who has attended IWC meetings for nearly 20 years. "Whales are difficult to study and every time we think we understand a particular aspect of their lives we find out 10 or 15 years later that we were wrong about it," she says.

This summer the journal Science published news of a study suggesting that the prewhaling populations of North Atlantic humpback, fin, and minke whales were far larger than previously thought. The study, based on genetic analysis, suggested that whale populations will not return to exploitable levels for many decades.

Other scientists question the accuracy of the study. Nils Oien, a scientist at the Institute of Marine Research in Bergen, Norway, says there is considerable uncertainty in the study's results, and defends Norway's minke quotas.

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