No Finger-Pointing

UK IFAW Director Rob Marsland talks about Iceland, whaling, and tourists
12.9.2011
Words by Paul Fontaine
If you've spent some time in Iceland this past summer, you may have seen them: Volunteers in International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) T-shirts, handing out leaflets, accompanied by a person dressed as a whale's tail. This is a part of a new campaign started by the IFAW aimed at tourists who visit Iceland. However, as UK IFAW Director Rob Marsland explained to Grapevine, this isn't a campaign about shaming and scolding—this conservationist group has taken a whole new approach, and so far, it seems to be working.

The idea began some eight years ago, when Icelandic began ‘scientific whaling.’ At first, Rob says, IFAW did what they normally do: filmed whale kills and started a letter-writing campaign. But then they did an evaluation of this approach, and found they didn't get quite the result they'd hoped for.

“What we'd done is make Iceland circle the wagons,” Rob says. “So we had a think, and decided that's not going to work. What we need to do is work within Iceland. Wagging the finger might make you feel good, but it doesn't work.”

And so, after having a think, they tried a new approach: “Over the last eight years, we have tried to participate in a debate on the wisdom of whaling. It has been patient work, involving not being aggressive, and being reasonable.”

Rob admits that he finds it “embarrassing” to see tourists eating whale meat. “The IFAW exists because members from around the world think that the work we do is fantastic. So I come here for eight years, and see the same people who support us adding to consumption of whale meat.”

NORMAL RULES ARE SUSPENDED

By the best estimate the IFAW has at hand, 40% of minke whale meat is eaten by tourists, yet 90% of these same tourists are against whaling. How does that happen?

“My feeling is, you're on holidays,” Rob explains. “Normal rules are suspended. You think eating whale meat is part of the culture, so it won't make a difference if I eat it. So it's easy to have two different thoughts in your brain—I'm against whaling, and I'm on holiday so it's OK to eat whale meat—and that's where ‘Meet Us Don't Eat Us’ came from. We're not trying to tell tourists off. We're just trying to get them to join those two thoughts.”

The campaign they launched has involved putting leaflets on Reykjavík Excursion buses, urging tourists “while dining in Iceland's great restaurants, consider what you're eating,” the volunteers downtown, and of course a controversial ad campaign that was set up in Keflavík airport.

As many may recall, the airport broke its contract with the IFAW to have signs up in the airport urging tourists not to eat whale meat—within weeks of the campaign being launched, airport management claimed they had been deceived, and would never have signed on with the campaign.

Rob's take on the matter is a bit different. “The bare bones of the facts are: we approached the airport, said we'd like to do some advertising, we showed them the advertising, and they very happily signed a contract from May to September. Two weeks after campaign launched, they said they were very concerned about the content of the campaign and wanted us to take it down.”

This confused Rob. The airport had seen the full ad campaign—as a series of published e-mail exchanges would prove—and had even offered a reduced rate. Rob believes complaints came in from minke whalers, and the manager felt compelled to act. As the IFAW's money was fully refunded, he takes this as an admission that there was a breach of contract, but he doesn't intend to sue. Instead, he wrote to the manger, offering to conduct another campaign, while asking what sorts of changes the airport would like to see done to the ads.

IS IT WORKING?

The volunteers who have been handing out leaflets downtown operate within the heart of the capital, meeting tourists and Icelanders alike on street level. Over 100.000 leaflets were handed out in three weeks. So how have tourists—and Icelanders, too, for that matter—responded to the campaign?

Quite well, Rob says. “Lots of tourists have made the connection. That was the kind of messaging that we wanted. Not 'you're stupid for doing this' but 'do you really think you should do this?' Of course there've been some tourists who've said they're going to try whale meat, and that's their prerogative, but I think it's important that we've been able to engage.”

Even the Icelandic response has been positive. “I've been surprised at the number of supportive responses. Not surprised that there have been a few who make it clear that they're not in agreement and support whaling. And very, very pleased that the number of people who displayed any anger about it has been very, very small. That's a sign that there's room for the debate.”

ARE YOU FOR OR AGAINST ICELAND?

Rob believes that how the questions within the debate are framed has an impact on how they are answered. “When you ask an Icelander 'are you for or against whaling?’ the question that they hear is 'are you for or against Iceland?' And I think Iceland's a fantastic place, and wouldn't be a part of any campaign that said Iceland was a bad thing. So what we've been trying to do is separate the idea of Iceland and whaling, and allow people to love Iceland but question whaling."

And questioning whaling is what Rob does. In particular, it's the economics of whaling that intrigues him: it doesn't seem to be able to make any money.

“Economics of whaling has always been a mystery,” he says. There is a small domestic market for minke meat. Pre-2008, Icelanders who ate whale once a month comprised less than 3% of the population. Today, it's about 5%.

When fin whaling started, the waters muddied even more. “We were perplexed, because in 2008, the amount of fin whale meat being eaten in Japan was in decline, there is no fin whale meat being eaten in Iceland, and yet here's [Kristján] Loftsson [the head of Iceland's sole whaling company] saying he's going to make lots of money. So it was confusing to us.”

How does he do it? Essentially, it works like this: every few months, Kristján sends fin whale meat to Japan, where it sits in customs for 3 months while undergoing toxicity tests. Then it is sold to a company that Kristján himself owns. “I don't use the word 'exporting' for what he does with the whale meat,” Rob says. “I call it 'transferring'.”

A STOCKPILE OF SCIENTIFIC WHALE

Scientific whaling costs taxpayers considerable amount of money, not to mention the time and effort of the foreign office conducting PR and damage control. An economic report done on how much money could be made from fin whale meat showed that you would need a big market and a lot of effort. But that is all lacking. Instead, there's one whaler, killing a small number of whales, and not exporting that much, building up stockpile in freezers.

The fact that there are a small number of fin whales being killed in Icelandic waters, Rob believes, has no bearing on their purported status as critically endangered creatures. “Fins are internationally recognised to be a critically endangered species,” he says. “To argue that it's OK to do whaling in Iceland is to have a very microscopic view of the world. Iceland is respected the world over for its scientific knowledge of the oceans. So for some to contend, 'Well, they're not endangered here' isn't very scientific.”

Finally, Rob asks that we consider how that minke whale steak is put on a restaurant's plate.

“IFAW thinks that if an animal has to be killed, then it should be done humanely. The International Whaling Commission has had scientists working for years on ways to humanely kill a whale, and they've never been able to come up with one. If there were a slaughterhouse where cows were allowed to roam freely over a rugged terrain, and a man was sent in with a crossbow to kill them, it would be closed tomorrow.”

Whether or not IFAW's softer, more friendlier campaign will have an impact on how much whale meat tourists eat remains to be seen. But if initial reac-tions are any indication, whale steaks may soon become endangered. 

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