Iceland plans whaling for 'scientific research'

Environmentalists and the tourist industry on Thursday criticised Iceland’s decision to resume limited whaling, saying it was unnecessary and could hurt the country’s booming whale-watching businesses.

The government’s announcement on Wednesday that it planned to take 38 minke whales this year for scientific research infuriated many, including anti-whaling governments such as the United States and Britain.

“We fear very much that this will definitely damage Iceland’s image, but of course we plead for tourists not to boycott us altogether,” said Asbjorn Bjorgvinsson, manager of the Husavik Whale Centre and chair of the Whale-watching Association of Iceland.

Bjorgvinsson said owners of the 10 companies in the association feared the decision would hurt their fast-growing business. Some 62 000 people went whale-watching in Iceland last year, most of them foreign tourists, compared to 2 200 in 1995, he said.

The growing number of whale-watching trips has taught whales that humans aren’t dangerous, he said.

“Some of them have become very friendly,” he said.
“We feel that the most friendly ones will be the ones that will be killed, because they’re now quite [comfortable] with boats and they’ve for years now been playing with the boats.”

The whaling expert at Iceland’s Ministry of Fisheries did not return calls seeking comment. The ministry said on Wednesday it hopes to learn more about whale populations through the hunts.

It cut back on plans for a bigger take that had angered opponents when Iceland presented it at a meeting of the International Whaling Commission, the world regulatory body, in June.

Officials had said then that Iceland wanted to kill 100 minkes, 100 fin whales and 50 sei whales for each of the next two years.

The ministry’s announcement did not say how many whales would be killed after this year.

The ministry said the quota of 38 minkes “shows Iceland’s willingness to be constructive and compromise when it comes to whaling issues.”

Minkes are far more abundant than the endangered fin and sei whales.

Officials in Britain and the United States, along with many conservationists, protested that there was little scientific knowledge to be gained from killing whales.

“It’s just outdated and most science has moved beyond that,” said Susan Lieberman, director of the species programme at the conservation group World Wildlife Fund..

Modern technology like DNA analysis and tissue biopsies can glean most of the information that was once only available by killing whales and analysing their stomach contents, she explained. Lieberman said she feared Iceland was simply testing what international reaction might be if it resumes commercial whaling, as it has said it may do after 2006.

While hunting for commercial purposes is banned under international treaties, nations that belong to the International Whaling Commission may kill some whales for research. Japan has an extensive scientific whaling programme, but opponents contend it is just a cover for commercial whaling.

Iceland called off commercial whaling in 1989 under an international moratorium. - Sapa-AP

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