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Rhetoric to the south, reality to the north: realigning the conflict over whaling

In Iceland, the whale is just another fish. reutC/flickr

On December 7, three whaling ships set out from Japan and kicked off the 2011 whaling season. For the next few months, Australian eyes will be focused on conflict in the Southern Ocean as the annual ritual over Japanese whaling is played out.

Japan’s Fisheries Agency has an additional US$28 million this year to strengthen its fleet’s security and ensure that last year’s scenario – when only one quarter of its target was realised – will not be repeated.

The Sea Shepherd Conservation Society (SSCS) proposes to send three ships and 100 “eco-warriors” to Antarctica and the Australian whale sanctuary. SSCS recently declared: “[the Japanese] will have to kill us to prevent us from intervening … We will undertake whatever risks to our lives will be required to stop this invasion of arrogant greed into what is an established sanctuary for whales”.

Intriguing as this political rhetoric might be, the result is to focus our gaze on relatively unimportant developments to the south. Meanwhile, more significant ones are being consolidated to the north.

The most important is the commodity path in whale meat being developed between Iceland and Japan. This will make good any shortfall in supply which might result from Japanese whaling being curtailed. The main agency in this process is the Icelandic whaling firm Hvalur hf. It is owned and managed by Kristjan Loftsson, a leading businessman with a long family history in fishing. He is a prominent figure in the Independence Party, and one of Iceland’s representatives on the International Whaling Commission (IWC).

Iceland’s changing stance towards the IWC has been critical to the emergence of this trade. After a decade outside the fold, Iceland rejoined the IWC in 2002. The following year it sought a scientific permit to undertake “feeding ecology studies”. This required it to kill 250 whales annually.

Since then, the quotas have fluctuated. But when the current government took over in the wake of the GFC, quotas were reset at 200 minke whales and 200 fin whales. In light of the abject state of its economy, no avenue was going to be passed up for creating job opportunities inside Iceland and accumulating capital overseas.

Iceland’s small but efficient whaling industry has earned $17 million in five years. silentDAN

Hvalur exploited these opportunities to the full through its small but efficient whaling fleet and the political clout of its owner. It accessed cheap processing facilities at home and set up its own import company inside Japan to ensure Loftsson’s control over the entire operation.

In the past four to five years, 1,200 tonnes of meat and blubber have been exported, generating a return of about US$17 million. Since the Icelandic commodities have proved cheaper than those available from Japanese sources, and since the Japanese palate favours fin whale meat, the prospects for further expansion are considered exceptional.

The details summarised above can be found in a report, Renegade Whaling: Iceland’s Creation of an Endangered Species Trade, from the UK-based Environmental Investigation Agency and Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society. These are partisan bodies, but generally the report confirms what would be known or anticipated by any informed observer.

Since Iceland has regularly produced far more whale meat than could be consumed by its own population (300,000), the scale of this trade with Japan scarcely comes as a major surprise. But useful details emerged from interviews with local traders: when the Japanese fleet returned home in early 2011 with far less than its target catch, whale meat from Iceland was sold in larger quantities than previously through an increasing number of outlets.

The Renegade Whaling report is short on the wider cultural context in which Icelandic whaling occurs, but aspects of this are important for us to acknowledge. First, Icelanders have no truck with the idealised iconography of whales so pervasive in countries like Australia and the UK. The way we constitute whales as a metonym for nature and anthropocentrically endow them with human qualities is absent from the Icelandic world view. Because fishing has long been integral to the national economy and its island culture, whales are viewed in entirely practical terms as “just fish”.

Icelanders also recognise that an end to killing whales will result in their assuming pest proportions, with major impact on already dwindling fish stocks.

Iceland has responded to attacks on its industry with nationalist unity. Gunnlaugur Briem

Second, the whaling issue has become inextricably bound up with nationalist sentiment. External criticism compounds the judgment that Icelanders are under siege and must rally round for the sake of the nation. Numerous recent developments have compounded this view. There was the 1986 sabotage of two whale catcher boats and the 1988-1990 boycott of Icelandic fish. More recently, demonstrations elsewhere in Europe have portrayed Icelanders as primitives and barbarians.

Above all, the population has been moulded by, and become profoundly attached to, the harsh and relentless natural world around them. Icelanders are intensely aware of how they have survived their struggle with nature through their deep and respectful comprehension of it. This is why they react so strongly against outsiders who question their integrity and challenge their sovereignty.

Evidently then, it is simplistic to believe that forcing the Japanese whaling fleet out of the Southern Ocean will constitute a decisive development. The trade in whale meat is part of a complex global economy, and its specifics are greatly influenced by contrasting cultural considerations. Hindering the work of the whalers may produce high drama, but the outcome may well be a substantial expansion in the already lucrative trade between Iceland and Japan.

It should also be clear that Iceland will remain as formidable a proponent of whaling as the Japanese have proven to be. Indeed, the task may be more difficult because the superficial differences on which negative stereotyping turns do not apply.

Australia has far from distinguished itself in the war on whaling: demonising the Japanese has long been the other side of the coin to worshipping the whale. But Icelanders look like us and talk like us, their science is much the same as ours (including the science which sets whale quotas) as are their political processes. Turning our gaze northwards to Iceland’s whaling economy will require realignment of our moral compass as well as our physical one.

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