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Ministry for Foreign Affairs

Economic and Political Perspectives

Opening Address at the International Conference on Whaling in the North Atlantic - Economic and Political Perspectives
H.E. Mr. Halldor Asgrimsson, Minister for Foreign Affairs of Iceland
March 1, 1997


Ladies and gentlemen,

It is an honour to have the opportunity to address you here today. It is indeed encouraging to see the high-level of competence, in terms of speakers, on the different aspects of the issue the conference is meant to deal with.

Five years ago, I left my post as Minister of Fisheries after having held that position in the Government of Iceland for nearly 8 years. During that period, a considerable part of my time and energy was devoted to the whaling question. I participated in some of the meetings of the International Whaling Commission, made several trips to neighbouring countries to consult and negotiate the issue. In all modesty I think I can claim to have been one of the principal players in strengthening the cooperation of countries in the high north, which led to the establishment of the North Atlantic Marine Mammal Commission (NAMMCO).

All this came about because in the last 25 years or so, quite different views on the whale stocks and their utilization have evolved.

First, we have the view of those who regard the whale stocks as a renewable, exploitable resource and favour scientifically based, sustainable harvesting of this resource.

Secondly, there are those who are not willing to accept the view that whales are an exploitable resource and are convinced that whales are special animals that deserve full protection. The anti-whaling industry, which often claims this view, has in fact become a regular business in its own right, fuelled by well meaning, innocent people who donate their money to something they believe will improve our world.

The third category consists of those who in general agree that whales are an exploitable resource but think that stronger scientific evidence on the status of the stock is still needed.

In my opinion the second group, the fanatics, is the smallest, while I think the last mentioned group, people with a more reasonable approach to the whaling question, but who are perhaps not well informed, deserves more attention. I have to admit that we have not done enough to provide information in recent years and that we still have much work ahead.

Icelanders depend for their livelihood on the sea and its resources. Marine products account for almost 80% of Iceland's total export earnings. Our waters are among the richest fishing grounds in the world, and we have done our utmost to conserve the fish stocks and increase their utilization. To do so we have applied extensive marine research programmes and the best available methodology.

In our view, we should apply the same methods to marine mammals.
Investigations by the Scientific Committee of the IWC, and later by the
Scientific Committee of NAMMCO have indeed shown that the stocks of minke, fin and sei whales in the North Atlantic are well above harvestable levels.

Although today it is undeniable that certain whale stocks can be safely harvested, widespread and vocal calls are being made for complete protection of all whales, regardless of the state of specific stocks. These demands have been supported by various nations, particularly in the western world.

It is understandable that environmental campaigners should focus on
endangered species, and it is also understandable that their arguments about whales should appeal to nations that have little acquaintance with fisheries. But bracketing all species of the same biological order together as far as utilization is concerned is clearly out of the question for communities of the high north, largely dependent on the marine resources. No one would consider, for example, enforcing a worldwide ban on fishing only because the cod population on certain banks has been endangered by overfishing. Exactly the same principle applies to marine mammals, the fact that specific whale stocks are endangered is no argument for protecting all whale stocks.

Unqualified protection of all whales and other marine mammals is also contrary to modern concepts of sustainable resource management. The 1992 United Nations Conference on the Environment and Development (UNCED) in Rio de Janeiro endorsed the basic principle that all states should commit themselves to the conservation and sustainable use of living marine resources. Nations that bear the greatest responsibility for rational utilization of marine resources cannot, therefore, accept the notion of total protection of whales.

The Rio Conference endorsed the right of states to utilize their own resources in accordance with their own environmental and development strategies. Prior to that, the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea acknowledged the jurisdiction of states over such utilization within their 200-mile exclusive economic zones. It also recognized marine mammals as a resource, and declared that states should cooperate with a view to the conservation of cetaceans through the appropriate international organizations for their conservation, management and study. Iceland has met its obligations in this area and will continue to do so. With respect to the International Whaling Commission, Iceland is understandably very reluctant to rejoin, as the Commission has failed to adhere to its own convention.

Ladies and gentlemen,

Clearly, international law and science as well as the modern philosophy
of sustainable development are in favour of rational utilization of the resources. All responsible nations must utilize their resources with both the interests of present and future generations in mind. Coastal states with centuries of fishing experience ought to have developed the most reliable knowledge about the best way to harvest these resources.

Iceland's viewpoint has thus been, and still is, that safe harvesting of the whale stocks under active supervision and based on scientific foundation offers an economical and sustainable way of utilizing the resources of the ocean. We need to carry that message forward before it becomes history to catch whales (or even fish for that mater). It is important that countries in the north speak with one voice on this issue. Only then will we be able to establish a more tolerant view towards our value judgements and cultures, which indeed is a key to the solution of this issue.

I believe this conference will help us understand what we are dealing with when it comes to the complicated questions on the future of whaling. I am therefore pleased to announce the opening of this one-day Conference on Whaling in the North Atlantic.


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