No pun intended, but Iceland is a cool country. I’ve never been there, but consider this: It has only about 300,000 people, not quite small enough for everyone to a be on a first-name basis, but small enough for everyone to be listed alphabetically in the phone book by their first name. If you follow the tradition, Icelanders take their last name from their father’s first name. If you’re a guy and your father is named “Lars”, your last name is Larsson. If you’re a rock star named Bjork and your father’s name is (apparently) Gudmund, your full name becomes Bjork Gudmundsdottir. Also, apparently, one in every 300,000 Icelanders is a celebrity.
For a cold-climate nation, Iceland does fairly well on greenhouse gas emissions: About 12 metric tons per person per year, which is less than half of the U.S. They can pull this off because Iceland has made a national commitment to use its natural environment as an energy source: Virtually all of the island’s electricity comes from hydro or geothermal power.
The past year has been brutal for Iceland’s fish-and-tourism dominated economy. While the rest of the world was seeing its financial structure deteriorate, Iceland’s collapsed completely. This led to unheard-of unrest in the streets, and the fall of its government in January.
Within days of the fall, Iceland’s new government sighted multiple fifty-ton stimulus packages just offshore. In the name of jobs creation, Iceland re-entered the commercial whaling industry. Under the new announcement, Iceland would permit the hunting of up to 150 finback whales, and 100 minke whales each year for the next five years. Minkes are smaller whales that are not considered endangered, but the fins are on the IUCN Red List, the global equivalent of the U.S. Endangered Species List.
Iceland hopes to export whale meat to Japan, which has tried to ignore or evade the international ban on whaling since it was passed in 1986. Shortly after the ban, Japan (and, to a much lesser extent, Iceland and Norway) developed a passion for “researching” whales by killing them. Groups like the Environmental Investigation Agency traced the research products to the same commercial meat markets in Japan where whale products had always been sold, where, presumably, consumer research found them to be delicious. By importing fin whales from Iceland, Japan will have a much easier time filling its meat markets: One fin whale equals the take from about eight minkes, according to Arni Finnsson of the Iceland Nature Conservation Association.
The Federation of Icelandic Fishing Vessel Owners spearheaded a political campaign to bring back whaling, despite an abortive effort just a few years earlier. Iceland resumed commercial whaling in 2006, inviting boycott threats and protests from conservation and animal rights groups. They dropped the whaling plan a year later, when domestic markets for whale meat didn’t materialize. Iceland resumed smaller-scale whaling last year, with a quota of 9 fin and 40 minke whales.
Conservationists and animal protection groups are already up in arms. Two major UK supermarket chains have threatened to cash in their chips on Icelandic fish imports. The U.S. and others may invoke trade sanctions against any whaling done outside of international agreements. Most Icelanders support a return to whaling, seeing international pressure as both an insult to their sovereignty and a scape-goating of a country that’s done a better job than many of protecting oceans. Either way, it’s a setback for the end of whaling -- long thought to be one of the first true worldwide conservation victories.
All of which seems a potentially big price for a suddenly struggling little nation to pay.
(Note: I showed this piece to my friend Kathi Nelson, whose family was the entire Icelandic community in our home town in New Jersey. She pointed out that in addition to Bjork, Iceland has given the world two Miss Universes and Magnus ver Magnusson, the four-time winner of ESPN’s “World’s Strongest Man” competition. So I guess one could argue that one in every 75,000 Icelanders is a celebrity.)
Peter Dykstra is the former executive producer of CNN's Science, Tech and Weather Unit. He writes three columns for MNN: Media Mayhem on Mondays, Political Habitat on Wednesdays, and Green States on Fridays. (Yes, he writes a lot.)