Does it matter that one of the most magnificent animals ever to have lived is being killed in large numbers in the cold waters of the northeast Atlantic, merely for a dish that teases the taste buds of diners in Tokyo? In Europe, strong new evidence shows that it does matter to many people, and a host of European and other governments have taken their message directly to Iceland, which is estimated to have realised an estimated $50 million in profits from the whale trade over the last few years.
European Union member states and the governments of the United States, Australia, Brazil, Israel and New Zealand, have just delivered a serious diplomatic protest, known as a démarche, to Iceland. It is the highest level of diplomatic complaint that can be brought to bear, short of economic sanctions or going to war, and was delivered by a group of ambassadors to government officials in Reykjavik.
IWC Slovenia 2014. Photo: M Simmonds
The issue involved was Icelandic whaling, the démarche coinciding with the 65th meeting of the International Whaling Commission which is in its closing stages in Portoroz, Slovenia. For some years the European Union has been shy of criticising Iceland whilst the small island nation toyed with EU membership. However, once it became clear that EU membership was not going to happen, Europe did what it arguably should have been doing all along. It robustly criticised Iceland for killing whales that are highly protected in adjacent European waters, including endangered fin whales.
Formal protests such as this have been received before in Reykjavik. This one does make clear, however, that Europe and many other nations find Iceland's whale killing totally unacceptable. The signatories to the démarche are 'especially troubled by Iceland's harvest of 125 fin whales in 2009, 148 fin whales in 2010, and 134 fin whales in 2013, all of which are a significant increase from the seven fin whales harvested over the 20 years prior to 2009'. The text also calls on Iceland to withdraw its formal objection at the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, which it uses to trade internationally in whale meat.
Iceland is one of three nations that continue to whale for profit despite the moratorium on commercial whaling agreed upon in 1982. Iceland withdrew from the IWC in 1992, but launched several attempts to rejoin some years later, making its membership contingent on other IWC members allowing it to join with a reservation to the moratorium. At its third attempt, in 2002, it finally succeeded in achieving IWC membership with a reservation, in a decision that passed by just one vote, with Iceland itself bizarrely allowed to vote. So, in effect, Iceland voted itself back into the Commission. Several countries have refused to officially recognise its membership after this farcical manoeuvre, and a number of delegations at IWC 65 in Slovenia underscored their concern about Iceland's membership and whaling in speeches from the floor.
Against this background Iceland has developed its large-scale fin-whaling operation to make money - a lot of money. A recent report estimates that Iceland's whale meat trade over the last eight years, during which more than 5,000 tonnes of fin whale products have been sent from Iceland to Japan, is worth US$50 million. As I write, the 2014 Icelandic hunt is underway, and to date this year more than 160 fin and 23 minke whales have been killed. This brings the number of whales killed by Iceland since 2003 to more than 1,000.
As the EU-led démarche reflects, the majority of people in Europe have a heart-felt opposition to whaling. This was most recently evidenced by an opinion poll showing that nine out of ten people in Germany and the UK disagree with Iceland's decision to resume whaling.
There is another element to this issue that sometimes gets lost in the weeds of the legal and conservation debates around whaling - a great whale out on the open seas cannot be killed humanely. The bigger the whale, the less likely it is that it will be rendered immediately insensible from the explosion of the penthrite grenade-tipped harpoon. Dense layers of bone, blubber and muscle need to be penetrated in order to reach, stun or destroy the brain. In addition, a fin whale is fast swimming and more than 20 metres long.
In light of all that we know of whales, their sentience, their critical role in ocean ecosystems, and the variety of threats they now face worldwide, the commercial exploitation of our ocean giants must cease. Countries worldwide must take decisive and meaningful action to bring the slaughter to an end, and the démarche is a good start on this march towards a fully effective worldwide ban on commercial killing of the whales.
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