An opinion piece by Imogen Sawyer | Iceland coordinator
Those that thought that the discussion about the place of whaling in modern Iceland would die down once the hunting season was over have been proven very wrong. New articles continue to appear in mainstream Icelandic media and the absurdity of the current situation is being featured in topical comedy sketches. This is not a nation showing any sign of wanting a conversation to end.
For months, politicians (and Kristján Loftsson) have been waiting for a report from the ombudsman on the postponement of the commencement of the 2023 whaling season.
The pro-whaling parties, funded by Loftsson for decades, have had their responses to the report prepared for a similar length of time. To them, the actual content of the report would seem to be of little consequence, they have already been practising their cries for a vote of no confidence in Svandís Svavarsdóttir in front of the mirror… For this is the surest way of ensuring their wealthy patron and friend can continue to do what he wants and send the boats out hunting fin whales.
But with Svandís gone, a pro-whaling minister could simply be slipped back into the post and life could continue quietly as before.
So the publication of the report on the 5th of January must have been a little disappointing for Hvalur and pro-whaling individuals although, in fairness, it was a little disappointing for the anti-whaling public majority too. The ombudsman opinion confirmed that animal welfare should absolutely be considered when making decisions but, unfortunately, the regulations were so out of date that animal welfare formed no part of them. This, in turn, meant that technically the minister went a step too far, in line with the Icelandic concept of Meðalhóf (a requirement for decisions to be no stricter than they should be).
Critically though, the ombudsman did not make a single recommendation.
A friend in Iceland put it like this;
"Two children are in a playground, child one (Kristjan) misbehaves and breaks school rules, hurting child two (Svandís).
Child two – who was behaving nicely until that point – reacts, hurting child one in direct response to ensure it doesn’t happen again.
The teacher (ombudsman) then comes along, points out that child one was wrong but child two should not have reacted so strongly either. The teacher then sends them both back to the playground with no further repercussions. That is the end of the matter."
Of course, this is a simplification. However it shows what an over-reaction the calls for a vote of no confidence truly are.
But now consider this, Svandís was meticulous in following the procedures set down in the Act on Animal Welfare so, having been advised that whaling by Hvalur did not comply with welfare legislation, what else could she do? If she permitted Hvalur 8 and 9 to return to sea to continue inflicting long painful deaths upon fin whales, she would be condoning illegal acts. Some would say complicit in the illegal deaths themselves.
What other option, but to take action and follow the expert and legal guidance, did the minister truly have? Both the minister and the ministry were between a rock and a hard place with little time to take action.
Perhaps this is the point to remember that Hvalur are predominantly responsible for this lack of time. If Kristján Loftsson had responded promptly to the review, there would have been sufficient time follow the procedures, to consult the expert committee and convene a working group in order to obtain recommendations ahead of the planned start to the season on the 21st June. But he didn’t. His 23 page letter wasn’t sent until the 31st March 2023 - six months after the season ended, and now Loftsson is hoping that folk just forget this and pin the blame on the minister instead.
Althingi (the Icelandic parliament) returns on the 22nd January and only time will tell whether the calls for a vote will still be so loud. Already the chair of the Independence Party (traditionally pro-whaling) is pointing out that there is work to be done and a vote of no confidence in Svandís could see them unable to push forward with other and, in her opinion, more important economic matters. And she’s right in a way – this situation still has the potential to bring about the collapse of government. If it does, the new coalition formed will see existing work put to one side and new opinions come to the fore – not just on the issue of whaling but also on wider economic and social issues.
Iceland, whaling and 2024, Kristjan Loftsson and the future of Hvalur hf
25 DEATH, 25 REASON |Web Series
As I write this, an end to whaling is still no where near guaranteed – not only will Svandís need to keep her job but the anti-whaling bill will need to be successful. This is still buried in committee, a place where many bills have withered away and, of course, the bill will need to be voted upon to enter into law. Will enough politicians vote in line with the wishes of the voters? Or will they vote in line with party politics?
Meantime, Hvalur have not yet applied for a license to hunt in 2024 – likely holding off in the hope that Svandís will be gone before submitting the application… although to be fair, at this point an annual quota for the next five years has not yet been announced.
The best outcome for fin whales, for the ocean, for people… is that whaling in Icelandic waters comes to an end. Unfortunately it’s perhaps more realistic to envisage a scenario of increased regulation. Worse still is that rumour has it that Hvalur have been looking at the abundance of humpback whales in Icelandic waters with a greedy eye.
It goes without saying that volunteer crew from the Paul Watson Foundation UK will be in Iceland if Hvalur set to sea but ask yourself this:
Should the desires of a single wealthy man be put ahead of the moral demands of a population? Should economic interests be put ahead of animal welfare? Or has the world moved on to a place of greater understanding that finds unnecessary suffering unacceptable?
What can you do?
As well as tagging and posting on socials, we’re asking people to send a short email to the Icelandic prime minister (Katrin Jacobsdóttir), copying in Svandís, to express support for the minister staying in her current position. If she falls, the likelihood of whaling increases. Emails that come from the heart are best but a template email is below if you would find that useful.
I am writing to express my support for Svandís Svavarsdóttir and her actions in 2023 to ensure that whales were given the protection that they are entitled to under the Act on Animal Welfare 2013.
In my opinion, there was no other realistic option available to Svandís – had she allowed Hvalur to hunt under the same rules as in 2022, she would have been responsible for allowing an illegal hunt to continue.
The Act on Whaling gives the minister the authority to restrict the season. By doing so, she was able to ensure that policy decisions could be taken based on expert advice. This was the only option available.
It was obvious that 2023 would have to be different, Hvalur would have known this too. The fact that they pretended otherwise and introduced delays to the review of the 2022 season is not the minister’s fault and there is nothing to hold her to account for.
The fact that she now faces a vote of no confidence is political games. Svandís deserves recognition for ensuring the Animal Welfare Act is implemented, for following procedure and remaining professional at all times – never resorting to generic insults and slurs like Hvalur. She should not be forced to go.
I will watch any vote of no confidence with interest and I hope that political parties will put their differences aside and instead focus upon the anti-whaling bill that’s still in committee and a wider review of legislation to identify other laws, such as the Act on Whaling, that require updating.