Sustainable Whaling in Icelandic Waters Questions and Answers
Q: What is the importance of sustainable utilisation of living marine resources to Iceland?
A: The Icelandic economy is overwhelmingly dependent on the utilisation of living marine resources and the sustainability of these resources is essential for the long-term prosperity of the country., fisheries in general constituted 42% of Iceland's revenue from exported goods in 2012 and 26% of Icelandic exported goods and services, respectively. Substantial whale research has been conducted in Icelandic waters for decades, including a series of large scale whale sightings surveys carried out as part of the international North Atlantic Sightings Surveys (NASS) several times since 1987. These surveys have demonstrated beyond doubt that fin and common minke whales are abundant and can be harvested at sustainable levels. Cetaceans play an important role in the Icelandic marine ecosystem. They have been estimated to consume around 6 million metric tons annually in the waters around Iceland. This corresponds to 4-6 times the total annual Icelandic fishery landings.
Q: Is sustainable whaling illegal due to the so-called moratorium of the IWC on commercial whaling?
A: No. For those countries that are bound by the so-called moratorium, commercial whaling is not permitted. However, there has never been a time when all IWC members have been bound by the moratorium. Several nations have made formal objections with respect to the blanket moratorium, which has no scientific basis and applies to all whale stocks irrespective of their different status, and are therefore not bound by it. Likewise, upon its re-entry into the IWC in 2002, Iceland made a lawful reservation with respect to the moratorium, which thereby has no effect regarding its whaling activities.
Q: Does Iceland engage in international trade in whale products?
A: Yes. Iceland exports around 95% of its harvested living marine resources and its economy is heavily dependent on such export. In the view of Iceland, whale products should be treated in the same way as any other seafood products. Icelandic whale products are likely to be consumed both domestically and overseas. Iceland has been engaged in international trade in whale products. In recent years our main trading partner has been Japan, but small amounts of whale meat have also been imported to Iceland from Norway.
In this regard it is important to point out that Iceland‘s international trade in whale products is in accordance with Iceland´s international legal obligations, including the CITES convention. This is due to the fact that Iceland has made reservations with respect to the CITES Appendices listings of fin and minke whales. Any Party to CITES may make such reservations and will accordingly not be bound by the provisions of the Convention relating to trade in the relevant species listed in the Appendices. Numerous Parties have made such reservations regarding one or more species listed in the Appendices. As of 9 October 2013, 44 Parties out of the 179 Parties to the Convention had made one or more such reservations.
Q: Does Iceland have a long whaling history?
A: Utilisation of whale resources is part of Iceland's tradition and history, providing an important dietary component throughout the ages. Written sources of Icelandic whaling reach as far back as the 13th Century. Long before any international agreements on whale conservation, the Icelandic Parliament (Althingi) in 1915 banned all whaling on species larger than common minke whales, after a period of overexploitation from foreign-owned land stations in Iceland during the period 1883-1915. This Icelandic "moratorium" lasted, apart from some limited catches during 1935-1939, until 1948 when a licence was given to a single land station. When commercial whaling was halted from 1986, following the IWC decision on a moratorium on commercial whaling, it had a negative economic and social impact on communities dependent on whaling. During 1986-1989 Iceland conducted a scientific research program, including takes of a limited number of fin and sei whales. No whaling was conducted in the period of 1990-2002, while a total of 414 fin whales were caught during the years 2006-2013. During 2003-2007 Iceland implemented the common minke whale research program, including the take of a total of 200 common minke whales, in addition to 7 animals caught under a commercial whaling scheme. Since 2008 an annual average of 47 common minke whales have been caught for commercial purposes. Since the resumption of commercial whaling in 2006, the annual average of fin whales has been 71 animals.
Q: How many whales has Iceland now decided to take?
A: Iceland's decision to continue sustainable whaling involves a limited number of whales that is in accordance with scientific advice provided annually by the Marine Research Institute of Iceland (MRI). The advice provided by the MRI is based on scientific stock assessments conducted by relevant international authorities such as the Scientific Committee of the International Whaling Commission (IWC) and the Scientific Committee of the North Atlantic Marine Mammal Commission (NAMMCO). According to the most recent scientific assessments, the stocks of both fin and common minke whales around Iceland are considered to be close to pre-exploitation levels with internationally agreed abundance estimates of more than 50 000 fin whales and 150 000 minke whales in the North Atlantic. In the latest advice from the MRI (June 2014), the recommended annual total allowable catch (TAC) for fin whales is 154 animals for the traditional whaling grounds west of Iceland and 229 common minke whales in the coastal waters around Iceland in the 2014 and 2015 seasons. The catch permits now issued are precautionary and will not have a significant impact on the whale stocks in question. Additional safeguard is provided by monitoring of the whales stocks with regular sightings surveys. A responsible management system including a DNA database and an international observer scheme ensures that the catch quotas set are not exceeded. The catches are clearly sustainable and therefore consistent with the principle of sustainable development and precautionary approach.
Q: Why does Iceland conduct sustainable whaling?
A: The position of Iceland has always been that whale stocks should be utilized in a sustainable manner like any other living marine resource. Twelve species of cetaceans occur regularly in Icelandic waters, thereof six species of large whales. At present, only the two most abundant of these species are exploited by Iceland.
The Icelandic policy on ocean issues is based on maintaining the future health, biodiversity and sustainability of the ocean surrounding Iceland, in order that its resources may continue to support and promote the nation's prosperity. This involves conservation and management of the resources based on scientific knowledge and guided by respect for the marine ecosystem as a whole. Whales constitute a significant part of the Icelandic marine ecosystem and although their effects on commercial fish stocks are not known in detail, sustainable exploitation of whales as a default option is at any rate unlikely to decrease the fishery yield.
Abundance estimates for both common minke and fin whales around Iceland have been approved both by the Scientific Committee of the International Whaling Commission (IWC) and the Scientific Committee of the North Atlantic Marine Mammal Commission (NAMMCO). Both species are considered abundant in the North Atlantic, numbering over 150 000 and 50 000, respectively.
Q: What will be the effect of the whaling on the whale populations in question?
A: Iceland has in collaboration with neighbouring countries in the North Atlantic conducted large scale whale sightings surveys at regular intervals since 1987. These surveys are conducted and analyzed under the oversight of the Scientific Committees of International Whaling commission (IWC) and North Atlantic Marine Mammal Commission (NAMMCO). According to the latest fully evaluated survey conducted in 2007, the number of fin whales in the Central North Atlantic is estimated at 20,600 animals. The corresponding estimate for common minke whales in coastal Icelandic waters is 20,800 animals and a minimum estimate for offshore areas around Iceland is 11,200. Both populations are believed to be close to pre-exploitation levels and estimated sustainable annual catch levels are 154 fin whales and 229 common minke whales. The fundamental basis for any advice from the Marine Research Institute of Iceland is long-term sustainability and thus the catch limits now issued will not have any significant impact on these abundant whale populations. A responsible management system will ensure that the catches are sustainable and that catch quotas will not be exceeded. Regular sightings surveys will be continued to monitor the development of the whale stocks. The latest survey was conducted in 2015 and the results will be available in 2016. Catch quotas will be adjusted accordingly to ensure long-term sustainability.
Q: Why are fin whales listed as endangered in the IUCN red list of threatened species?
A: The IUCN red list of threatened species was until recently solely based on a global perspective regarding the status of species. Thus a single classification was made for a species, irrespective of the status of individual populations. Fin whales have several separate populations (stocks) in each of all the major ocean areas. These are of highly variable status and there is no interchange of whales between major ocean areas. Therefore, such an approach can be most misleading when considering stock status. Further clarification on this issue is given at the IWC's website ( http://iwc.int/status ) including the following statement on the status of fin whales in the central North Atlantic (i.e. Iceland) and Greenland : “Assessments of the population status in the central North Atlantic and off West Greenland have shown populations there to be in a healthy state”.
Indeed, as can be seen on the IUCN webpage, IUCN acknowledges that fin whales in the North Atlantic are abundant and that the listing is based on the depleted level of the sub-species of fin whales inhabiting the Southern Ocean. “Most of the global decline over the last three generations is attributable to the major decline in the Southern Hemisphere. The North Atlantic subpopulation may have increased, while the trend in the North Pacific subpopulation is uncertain.” See: http://www.iucnredlist.org/details/2478.
For species such as the fin whale, with near-global distribution, divided into several isolated populations (for not mentioning subspecies), regional status assessments are more biologcially meaningful than a single collective assessment as done in the IUCN global redlist. In a recent regional assessment for North Atlantic cetacean populations (http://www.iucnredlist.org/initiatives/europe), fin whales around Iceland do not qualify for any of the IUCN threatened categories (“critically endangered”, “endangered” or “vulnerable”). According to the last assessment by the Scientific Committee of NAMMCO, the stock is close to pre-exploitation level and thus neither endangered nor threatened.
Figure 1 from the IUCN cetacean specialist group. See www.http://jr.iucnredlist.org/documents/attach/Mammals/2478_Balaenoptera_physalus.pdf.
This figure and associated report, clearly show that there has not been a decline in the abundance of North Atlantic fin whales (green colour if figure) since the IUCN refernece point in 1920, and the global decline in fin whales is solely due to the Southern hemisphere subpopulation (blue).
Q: Are 229 animals a high proportion of the minke whale stock in Icelandic coastal waters and are 154 animals a high proportion of the number of fin whales in the Central North Atlantic?
A: No. The total stock size of fin whales is estimated 20,600 animals and that of minke whales 32,000. Thus the permitted catch level for fin whales (154 animals/year) is around 0.8% of the stock size. For common minke whales the permitted catch level (229 animals/year) is 0.7% of the stock size, while the average annual catch since 2008 (58/year) is 0.2% of the stock size. The recommended catch limits of both species (0.7-0.8%) are well within the generally accepted values for sustainable catch rates of whale stocks. The catches are therefore clearly sustainable and consistent with the principle of sustainable development.
Q: Is Iceland also conducting research whaling?
A: No. The Icelandic research programme on common minke whales was finalized in 2007 when the targeted sample size of 200 animals had been reached. However, scientific research on cetaceans in Icelandic waters constitutes an important part of a wide range of research conducted by the Marine Research Institute. In addition to studies on the biology and ecology of the cetaceans themselves, this research is an important component of ran overall scheme of studies conducted by the Marine Research Institute of Iceland on the structure and function of the Icelandic marine ecosystem. As top predators, cetaceans are particularly suitable as indicators of the environmental changes ocurring at present. For this research, a variety of research techniques is used including photo-identification, satellite tracking, sightings surveys and biological sampling from the commercial catches.
Q: Is the management of whaling not a task for the International Whaling Commission (IWC)?
A: Iceland would prefer that the IWC would fulfil its role to manage whaling as prescribed in the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling. However, the IWC has proven to be dysfunctional in recent times. While the moratorium was scheduled to be reconsidered by 1990 at latest, it is still in force 25 years after this deadline. This is despite the fact that the Scientific Committee of the IWC agreed on the scientific aspects of a management scheme more than two decades ago. Iceland has taken an active part in deliberations within the IWC in recent years for the purpose of enabling the Commission to fulfil its role to conserve whales and manage whale stocks in accordance with the aforementioned Convention. Until such a conclusion has been reached, Iceland needs to use other options.
Q: Has the Scientific Committee of the IWC expressed opposition to the Icelandic whaling quotas?
A: No. In accordance with instructions from the Commission, the Scientific Committee of the IWC does not recommend commercial whaling quotas while the moratorium is in force. However, the Scientific Committee has formally accepted the abundance estimates of 22,000 fin whales in the Central North Atlantic from the 2007 survey. The Scientific Committee has also accepted an abundance estimate of 40,000 for the Central North Atlantic common minke whale stock from surveys conducted during 2005-2007. The allowed catches now constitute less than or around 1% of the accepted estimates for common minke and fin whales, well below generally accepted values for sustainable yield of whale stocks.
Q: Are there any reasons why whale products should rather be consumed domestically than be subject to international trade?
A: In Iceland's view, the question of international trade has no bearing on the management of whaling or whale conservation. What matters from a conservation point of view is how many whales are taken, not where they are consumed after they are taken.
Iceland does not support the view that international trade is fundamentally bad, neither regarding whale products nor other legally traded products. Nor does Iceland support trade discrimination between large and small countries.
The sustainability of the catches is determined by the level of the catches and has nothing whatsoever to do with what distance the products are transported before they are used.
Q: How humane are hunting methods for whales?
A: The methods used for hunting whales in Icelandic coastal waters are the best methods available based on Norwegian research, and in accordance with the rules of the IWC. No high-speed chase is involved and most of the animals die without realising that they are being hunted. Statistics from Norway, where the same methods are used, show that around 80% of the animals die instantly upon being hit. An overwhelming majority of the remaining 20% die within minutes. The methods used ensure that the catches are done in the quickest and most humane way possible and that suffering is minimised. In fact, these methods are more effective and humane than those used for hunting other large mammals, such as deer.
Q: Do other countries catch whales?
A: Yes. Several countries catch whales, even on a larger scale than Iceland. The United States has for instance a six year block quota of 336 bowhead whales from a stock of less than 17,000 animals. Of those who, like Iceland, operate within the International Whaling Commission (IWC) the biggest whaling countries by numbers and volume are Japan, Norway, Russia, Greenland and the United States. All those whaling operations, like those of Iceland, are legal and in accordance with the rules of the IWC.
Like most countries, Iceland strongly opposes unsustainable whaling operations and supports the protection of whale stocks that are threatened.
Q: Are Icelanders in favour of whaling?
A: Opinion polls have through the years consistently shown that around ¾ of Icelanders are in favour of sustainable whaling. According to the latest such poll, conducted by Gallup in October 2015, 73.2 % of those who expressed an opinion where in favour of whaling.
Q: Are there reasons to be concerned about the health impacts of whale meat?
A: There are no reasons to fear negative health impacts from consuming whale meat from Iceland. All marine organisms, particularly long-living species high in the food chain, have measurable levels of contaminants. Relatively high values have been found in some toothed cetaceans, as well as in some commercially exploited fish species such as tuna and halibut. However, baleen whales are at a low level in the food chain. Therefore, they contain pollutants at generally much lower values. Analysis of meat for pollutants in Icelandic fin and minke whales, both of which are baleen whales, have shown levels well below residue limits stipulated for food.
On the contrary, studies have shown whale products to represent high quality food regarding nutrients and bioactive components beneficial for human health. The meat is lean and its fat is rich in Omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids. Additionally, like other seafood, the meat is of high quality protein and rich in essential minerals and some vitamins.
Q: Has sustainable whaling had a negative impact on tourism in Iceland?
A: Statistics show that the number of tourists in Iceland has increased at the same time Iceland has been conducting sustainable whaling. Negative impact has therefore not been observed and whaling does not seem to have affected tourism to Iceland in any way.
Q: Has sustainable whaling had a negative impact on whale watching in Iceland?
A: In Icelandic waters, only highly abundant stocks are harvested. Special sanctuaries have been designated for whale watching to minimize the risk of conflicts between the whale watching industry and the whaling industry. Despite claims to the contrary when whaling was resumed in 2003, the experience of the last 13 years has shown that whaling and whale watching are not mutually exclusive and can coexist. On the contrary, polls have shown that many tourists see no contradiction between enjoying the whales both visually at sea and as a culinary experience at a restaurant, anymore than they would concerning wildfowl or reindeer. . This has also been the case in other countries where whale watching and whaling are practiced side by side.
Prepared by the Ministry of Industries and Innovation, February 2016.