World Council of Whalers 1999 General Assembly, March 27, 1999
Welcoming Address by H.E. Halldór Ásgrímsson, Foreign Minister of Iceland
Mr. Chairman, Ladies and Gentlemen,
It is indeed a great pleasure for me to welcome the World Council of Whalers to Iceland. We are particularly pleased that you have chosen Iceland as a venue for your second General Assembly. I am impressed to see so many important politicians and senior officials gathered here today which certainly shows the significance you attach to this General Assembly.
Let me at the outset assure you that in Iceland we fully concur with the objectives of the World Council of Whalers, one of which is to provide a forum for greater cooperation amongst those engaged in sustainable whaling and at the same time to support rational and sustainable whaling regimes and respect for the cultural and social concerns of societies and communities where whaling has for a long time been a part of the daily lives of people.
I gather that you are all familiar with the Icelandic position on whaling, - but let me, however, emphasize a few major points:
We are of the opinion that marine mammals should be utilized as any other living marine resource. Therefore, our view is that whaling on a sustainable basis should be resumed and our national legislative assembly has recently passed a resolution to that effect.
Recent public opinion polls here in Iceland indicate that around 77% of Icelandic voters are of the opinion that whaling should be resumed. This is not a new trend, rather a continuation of a long standing public sentiment.
Ladies and gentlemen,
You do not need to spend many days in Iceland to find out how dependent we are upon the sea and its resources.
Our famous, Nobel prize writer Halldór Laxness said in one of his books that "Life is salted fish", - and it goes without saying that he meant cod. This is of course very true. Iceland would not be inhabitable if we did not have the fishing grounds around Iceland where the cold currents from the north meet the warmer waters from the south providing ideal breeding grounds for many fish stocks.
Therefore, we take good care of this all important resource and our system of sustainable fisheries management is now increasingly being looked upon as a model by other nations. But let me assure you that this is a complicated issue and of course we have made some mistakes. But we look upon this as a learning process and we are confident that we are on the right road.
At the upcoming meeting of the United Nations Commission on Sustainable Development in New York next month there will be a special presentation of our fisheries management system of Individual Transferable Quotas and our environmental approach to fisheries and fish-processing.
In an average year fish and fish products account for some 70-75 per cent of our export revenues and yield more that 55% of our foreign currency earnings. In view of these figures you surely understand that we strive to take good care of our living marine resources and use them sustainably, be they fish or any other living marine resource.
Going back in time, foreign nations had for a long time conducted whaling in the waters around Iceland. At the time of the First World War the stocks had been harvested so intensively that we had to forbid all whaling in the waters around Iceland. This was one of the world's first whaling conservation measures on record. Commercial whaling was not resumed in Iceland until 1948 and continued up to 1986 when the IWC moratorium came into effect. At all times there were strict quotas and scientific data was extensively collected so that we do have wealth of information about whaling, and the state of the whale stocks in our Exclusive Economic Zone. At that time Iceland was a member of the IWC, but we later left that organization since we felt that it was not working in accordance with its own rules and regulations.
When talking about the whale stocks in Icelandic waters it must be borne in mind that the whales are our competitors. It has been estimated that the whales and dolphins in our waters annually consume more than five millions tons of fish and other prey species. This compares with one to 1.5 million tons of fish taken annually by Icelandic fishermen. Scientific evidence shows beyond all doubt that increasing stocks of whales significantly influence the yield of commercially valuable fish in the area.
Having said that, I am sure that you understand that the optimal utilization of all marine stocks, including of course whales and other marine mammals in Icelandic waters, is of paramount importance to us. Fishing patterns and the inter-dependence of stocks must be taken into account. A blank moratorium on healthy stocks of whales goes against the principles of sustainable development as defined and adopted by the world's community at the 1992 Rio Conference. It is also in complete contradiction with the views of the nations gathered at the last meeting of CITES in June 1997 where the majority voted in favour of downlisting the minke whale stocks, since the stocks are beyond all doubt in a healthy condition and are most certainly not endangered nor threatened in any way.
Admittedly, we who favour the sensible and sustainable utilization of all the living resources of the oceans are in a somewhat peculiar situation. The scientific evidence shows beyond doubt that many stocks of marine mammals can be sustainably utilized to help feed a hungry world. On the other hand we have powerful opponents with good access to the media who defy scientific data and undisputable facts and base their case exclusively on emotional grounds. Our opponents are more often than not far removed from nature and sometimes have only vague ideas as to how food arrives on their plates. In this often highly emotional debate one sometimes cannot escape feeling that there are people who care more about whales than they care about their fellow human beings. That, I must confess, I find rather difficult to grasp.
Scientific facts, people's need for healthy food and the interests of fishermen and fishing communities must be our guiding light, but not emotional and untrue propaganda from those who do not understand the complexity and the intricate workings of the ecosystems of the oceans.
We have an enormous task ahead of us, namely, to inform and educate the general public about the necessity to harvest in a sustainable and responsible manner all the living resources of the sea in order to feed a growing world population.
Let us work together towards that goal.