Iceland's culture clash: Save the whales vs. Captain Ahab

A cold wind whips across the cliff-bounded bay, but Keiko the whale couldn't care less.

Circling in his enormous floating pen, the 10,000-pound star of the 1993 hit film "Free Willy" squeals thunderous exhalations and pops his head high out of the water to check out some tourists.

But his guardians, members of the Ocean Futures environmental group, would prefer Keiko ignored the visitors. As part of an effort to reintroduce him to the wild Icelandic waters, where he was caught more than two decades ago, the group must weaken Keiko's bonds with humans.

Ironically, the country hosting and coddling this celebrity orca whale is at the vanguard of a huge push to legalize commercial whale hunting. Iceland's parliament voted to resume whaling in March, but the government is moving slowly on the issue for fear of a boycott by major trading partners. Nonetheless, the move is popular domestically: Three-quarters of Iceland's 270,000 people support the return to whaling.

Whales have been hunted for centuries here and are cherished not as individuals, but for their lean red steaks. orcas have never been hunted here, but Keiko is one of several captured for the aquarium trade.

"Whales are a renewable resource that we want to manage and harvest in a sustainable manner," says Johann Sigurjonsson, a whale fishery scientist and director of the Marine Research Institute in Reykjavik. "We don't accept that some animals in the ecosystem are holier than others."

While whaling is not vital to Iceland's economy, overall fishing accounts for 70 percent of the gross national product. Harvesting the sea is so vital to this tiny nation that during the 1960s and '70s it unilaterally extended its territorial waters from four to 12 to 50 and finally 200 miles from shore, narrowly averting armed conflict with Britain over the issue. Subsequently Canada and the US fished their cod stocks into near-oblivion, while Iceland's cod-fishing industry remains relatively healthy due to careful scientific monitoring and strict quotas early on.

Based on the latest surveys, populations of fin, minke, and sei whales are sufficiently healthy to sustain an annual catch of 100-200 of each, according to the Marine Research Institute.

But in response to the International Whaling Commission's worldwide moratorium, Iceland's four-ship whaling fleet has been tied up at a Reykjavik dock since 1989. For 11 years, Kristjan Loftsson has maintained the 600 ton whaling ships, waiting for the ban to be lifted. "If the stocks can sustain the harvest, we should utilize them," says Mr. Loftsson, a lifelong whaler and managing director of Hvalur, the whaling firm that owns the fleet.

He describes how 90-ton fin whales were harpooned, lashed to the side of the ship, and hauled back to Iceland's single whaling plant in Hafnarfjordur, a half hour's drive from Reykjavik. At the plant, the meat and blubber were frozen for human consumption - the vast majority exported to Japan, where it commands a high price as sashimi. The bones and offal were processed for oils or pet food. "Nothing was wasted," he says.

"The great overharvesting in the Southern Ocean during the 20th century was terrible and should never be repeated. But Iceland didn't take part in that. We're being punished for mistakes others made 70 years ago."

But Iceland - along with the US, Canada, and other countries - did play a part in hunting many North Atlantic whales to commercial extinction. The parliament banned whaling from 1915 to 1948, the year Iceland became fully independent from Denmark.

"It's political nonsense, that's all," Loftsson says of the IWC's moratorium. "They are animals like any others. To apply human intelligence criteria to them is absolute nonsense."

Cassandra Phillips, the Worldwide Fund for Nature's (WWF) UK-based whaling coordinator says the group supports very limited whaling by native people, but regards commercial, export-oriented whaling operations as a slippery slope.

"What Iceland wants to do is export whale meat to Japan where there is huge demand, high prices, and enormous potential profits," she says. "This isn't about people practicing their traditional way of life, it's about making as much money as possible in what is already a very rich country."

Norway resumed commercial hunting of minke whales in 1993, defying the IWC moratorium. It has increased its quota every year since then and plans to kill 753 of the 25-foot long whales this season. The Norwegian market has been unable to absorb the supply, but thus far the country has respected a worldwide ban on whale meat exports.

This season, Japan's distant-water whaling fleet killed 389 minke whales for "scientific purposes" inside Antarctica's Southern Ocean Sanctuary, causing a diplomatic uproar.

Meanwhile, thousands of people around the world monitor a single whale's progress toward freedom, many by checking updates on the Internet. Ocean Futures receives several media visitors a week, and the organization has made Keiko the poster child for protecting the oceans.

"The interest in Keiko is enormous," Foster says. "I think we've changed attitudes around the world."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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