iceland, sustainable travel, travel

The Ugly Side of Iceland: Whaling

March 11, 2016

Iceland is extremely fashionable these days. Everyone and their uncles are visiting this fantastic country and who could blame them? It has everything from geothermic hot springs, geysers, waterfalls and so much more that I couldn’t possibly explain in a short introduction.

But what about Iceland’s ugly side? I’m not going to pretend it is the perfect country – far from it. After the economic crash in 2009, the wages has lowered and the standard living rate has skyrocketed forcing inhabitants to work 60+ hour weeks to keep up. But there’s something even uglier I’ve yet to touch on. Even though I’ve already made 10+ blog posts on all things Icelandic from my three-day trip, I’ve been avoiding this topic like the plague. Why? Because I have way too much to say and a lot of my opinions might surprise you. However, what I have to say needs to be said. Let’s talk about whaling in Iceland.

I’ve heard countless debates from travel bloggers and potential tourists of Iceland arguing both sides of the whaling coin. Some say it’s outrageous and wrong, others say it’s a huge part of a poor country’s income without which they could possibly go bankrupt again. So what is the truth?

History of Whaling:

Whaling originally dates back to the late 12th century. Picture Vikings with whale blubber on spears. However, commercial whaling as we know it today was introduced in the late 1800s by the Norwegians. Due to a number of problems with demands and supplies, Iceland imposed various bans on whaling throughout the early 20th century. However, by 1986, whaling was back in trend due to the merits of scientific whaling. After years of protests, Iceland once again banned whaling in 1989.

Fast forward to 2003 and whaling is reintroduced, yet again for the merits of scientific whaling and after numerous protests, early in 2016, a ban was placed again and the founder of Iceland’s biggest whaling company declared an end to the commercial whaling on fin whales. A victory? I wouldn’t say so.

Who‘s to blame?

Like with any other industry, the people supplying the product are not the ones to blame for the cruelty. The buyers are. So who’s buying the whale meat? Tourists. According to the latest Gallup Poll, less than 2% of Icelanders actually eat whale meat and 55% of it is exported to countries like Japan and Latvia. Tourists make up the latter of the whale meat consumers and because of some twisted, tourism campaign, some people believe a trip to Iceland’s not complete without gnawing on some whale flesh.

In 2009, over 40% of tourists to Iceland claimed to have tried whale meat even though 80% claimed to be ethically against it. (source) Described at the Vacation Syndrome, people will often suspend their ethics for the sake of a historic and cultural experience. And yet there’s nothing historic or cultural about whale meat because Icelanders aren’t eating it! Excuse the bad pun but I think there’s some fishy marketing campaign going on here.

However, thanks to campaigns such as ‘Meet Us Don’t Eat Us’, 40% of tourists who try whale meat has fallen to 18% in the last five years. (source)

Strangely, the types of whales who fall victim to whaling are the fin whales (endangered) and the minke whales (least concern).

The fin whales are usually exported to Japan where they most likely sit in warehouses due to oversupply. However, since last month, the director of Iceland’s largest whaling company, Kristjan Loftsson, told the Icelandic news company, Morgunbladid, that he would no longer be sending out vessels to slaughter the fin whales due to the problems within the Japanese market.

So, if the endangered whales are no longer being slaughtered for meat, what is the difference between trying whale and trying fish (which is usually the “vegetarian” option on whale watching tours in places like Svalbard)?

What’s my opinion?

Although whaling is wrong, the majority of activists against whaling are ignoring the bigger problems on their doorsteps.

I doubt the majority of the whaling activists realise how hypocritical they’re being. The same goes for all those against the Yulin dog meat festival. I’m looking at you, Ricky Gervais. To look at those cultures with disgust yet continue to support our own, western versions of the same atrocities is absurd.

What is the difference between eating a dog, a pig and a whale? If your look outside the cultural norm there is very little difference. The notion behind the experience of looking at two animals and believing one deserves to be killed and eaten and the other deserves to be loved and protected is called Speciesism, a term coined by Melanie Joy. When the whales who are being slaughtered for meat are not close to extinction, there is little difference between hunting deers for venison or deep sea fishing. This act, although still cruel, is incomparable to how the western world treats cows, pigs and chickens and those who contribute to that cruelty has no right to condemn those committing the same cruelty with a different species. Yeah, that list includes vegetarians, eating dairy’s no different to eating veal, guys.

Of course nobody is perfect. I, too, get mildly miffed when someone compares my plastic shoes to leather because, those were the result of billions of dead animals as well. It’s frustrating to hear “you own Apple products so you have no right to talk about fair trade anything” and I bet it’s just as frustrating as “you eat meat so you have no right to talk about the cruelty behind whaling” and I don’t want to discourage anyone from getting involved in activism against whaling or the numerous of other acts of animal cruelty going on in the world, but check your own self before you do. Whaling isn’t cool but neither is dairy, or eggs, or factory farming, or “humane” farming. If you’re against one, you should look into the other horrific industries too.

So, to sum it up, I’m conflicted. Not about whaling, that’s a definite no thank you, please let’s continue to fight against that. I’m conflicted about the non-vegan activists. I know I should feel grateful that there are people against this cruel tradition, even if they’re hypocritical when it comes to their own culture. I know I should feel happy because the more people against something means we’re closer to ending the practices. But, (you knew that was coming) when people campaign against this stuff and take no notice when the same thing happens in their country, that seems kind of xenophobic if not completely racist.

If you’re for something that is barbaric but happens often in your own country, like eating meat and dairy, and against something just as cruel but normal in another country that tells me you’re against the culture, not the act itself. If it were the act, you’d campaign against the cruelty in your own culture first.

So, what side of the coin are you on? If you’re a vegan reading this, let me know how you feel about non-vegan animal rights activists. If you’re a vegetarian or meat-eater, let me know your thoughts too. Are you against whaling? Do you think whaling is any worse that eating meat or dairy?

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