Potential for Conflict: the Whale Industries in Iceland

Life and death: whale hunting and whale watching vessel divided only by the road

As tourism in Iceland continues to increase the potential for conflict between the whale watching and the whale hunting industries becomes more apparent.

By Stephanie Bishop-Hall

They are the two sides of a coin: life and death. In this case, the coin is the shape of an island between the North Arctic Ocean and North Atlantic Ocean: Iceland. A place described as a land of ‘fire and ice’, a place of extremes, opposites and contradiction. A place where whales live and die, are watched and eaten.

 The battle for Faxafloi Bay

 The contested area remains mostly in Faxafloi Bay, the large Bay on which Iceland’s Capital, Reykjavik sits.

 Maria Bjork Gunnarsdottir is the Marketing Manager at Elding Whale Watching.

 “The problem is,” she explains, “that the minke whaling takes place in Faxafloi Bay, so basically in the same area that we watch the whales they are being hunted.”

 Ms Gunnarsdottir adds, “…We are experiencing different behaviors which we have linked to whaling.”

 When asked to explain the behavioral differences observed, Ms Gunnarsdottir says, “For example, more minke whales are avoiding the boats, we are focused on being whale friendly so we try and recognise that and just look for other whales, but there are more of the whales that are avoiding the boats than before.”

 A line drawn in the water

 To avoid a literal collision between the watchers and the hunters on Faxafloi Bay an area has been exclusively designated for whale watching.

 Ms Gunnarsdottir believes that this is not adequate, explaining, “the government has set up a special area which, I think, is about 12 miles up the coast, but we feel that it is way too small for us.”

 She explains that incidents stills occur, “we see the fin whaling boats sailing into their processing site and we’ve seen the fin whales hanging on the side of the boats. It is something that we don’t want our passengers to see but sometimes you just can’t avoid it…we don’t feel that’s nice.”

A poster at Elding Whale Watching

 The tourism debate

 There are no solid statistics that indicate whale hunting has a negative effect on Iceland’s tourism industry or whale watching operators.

 “They say that, [that whaling negatively affects the whaling watching industry] but that has not been shown in any statistics. Actually what has happened after whaling began more tourists have come. Their answer is that even more would have come without whaling but I think that is a lousy answer,” says Kristjan Loftsson, owner of Hvalur H/F, the only company hunting the fin whale.

Gunnar Bergmann Jonsson, owner of the minke whaling company, Hrafnreydur ehf. also believes the negativity is on the side of the whale watchers. He states, “I respect the whale watching companies, I respect the tourists that are coming to Iceland to spend money here, I respect them both because they are buying whale meat out of the restaurants…in my opinion we should work together.”

 Mr Jonsson’s comments echo the official stance of the Icelandic Government on the issue of conflict between the industries.

On the website for the Ministry for Fisheries and Agriculture it states: “…there will be special areas designated for whale-watching to minimize the risk of conflicts between the whale-watching industry and the whaling industry. There are hopes that whaling and whale-watching can coexist with good cooperation between the parties involved…”

Despite this, Ms Gunnarsdottir explains that conflict stills occurs. “Last spring there was an incident with the minke whalers, we didn’t see them hunting but they were hunting within the exclusive line, and they were charged but until now nothing has happened despite the laws being quite strict.”

The merging of two worlds

‘Whale watching with whalers’ is a controversial new venture which could inflame or reduce the potential for conflict between these two industries.

Scheduled to begin on the 20th June 2012, the tours will be operated by Gunnar Bergmann Jonsson’s company, Hrafnreydur ehf.

“Be on a whaling vessel, see and hear a shot from our harpoon, taste our grilled and raw whale meat, see minke whales and see internal organs of the minke whale,” are among the list of activities on the website and will be included in the tours.

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