When Iceland resumed commercial whaling in 2006, an old whaling station in a deep, beautiful green fjord called Hvalfjordur — or ‘whale fjord’ — was dusted off about an hour’s drive outside the capital of Reykjavik. The company that had lobbied the government to resume commercial whaling was, in fact, the only company that still had a ship equipped to catch big whales. At the time, a lot of Icelanders thought it was silly to start up a practice again that was so widely condemned by the international community. (This was before the meltdown when Iceland still had some political capital to spare.) But it’s also a live-and-let-live kind of place, so others shrugged. If this guy wanted to go catch whales, let him go catch whales.
The day this company did go catch its first big whale – an enormous fin whale, to be exact – families drove out to the whaling station to watch the beast get hauled onto the cement platform and be flensed. Flensing, today an almost extinct process, is not for the faint of heart or weak of stomach, but that didn’t stop city folks from watching the bloody process, drawn to something that their grandfathers had done but nevertheless clashed with their modern society, known more for its pop divas and banking than its fishing prowess.
Today, the world dug its heels a little deeper into the muddy mix of tradition, animal rights, science and politics that the whaling debate has become as talks broke down at the annual meeting of the International Whaling Commission (IWC) without any resolution on the long deadlock between its pro- and anti-whaling members. There were high hopes that this week’s meeting in Morocco might pass a so-called “peace plan” drawn up by the IWC chief that would allow the nations that wish to continue commercial whaling a limited quota, without backing down entirely from the quarter-century ban.
But this week’s talks were suspended until next year when it became clear that the 88 member nations would not reach an agreement over the details of the plan. For the whaling nations of Iceland, Norway and Japan, it would have meant they could continue to cull whales without ignoring the global moratorium or exploiting it’s fine print. For nations working to see commercial whaling stopped, the IWC said the plan would have meant a stricter quota that could be more easily monitored and enforced than the much-maligned ‘scientific’ whaling that Japan has been practicing in the waters off Antarctica.
The middle ground this plan attempted to strike was predictably criticized by both pro- and anti-whaling camps for being either too stringent or too soft on whaling. So, too, was today’s lack of action. The Pew Environment Group, which supports upholding the global moratorium on commercial whaling, released this statement on Wednesday from Dr. Susan Lieberman, the group’s director of international policy:
“We are deeply disappointed that the governments present here, after more than 3 years of intense work, could not reach a solution that will benefit whale conservation. In particular, the lack of sufficient flexibility shown by Japan to phase out its whaling in the Southern Ocean Whale Sanctuary prevented a decision from being adopted. Continuation of the impasse here may retain the whaling moratorium on paper, but unregulated whaling outside of IWC control, by Japan, Norway, and Iceland, will now be able to continue.”
After Iceland went back to whaling, flensing got its 15 minutes of fame. For a few days, people watched four dozen or so workers work on a fin whale at once, first removing the animal’s fat, then its backbone, and then separating out the meat from the carcass. The whale’s organs and bones, which in the past would have been boiled down and used for fuel, were thrown into the sea.
But then people got bored, and went back to their day jobs. Kids went back to school. The show was over — except, of course, that it isn’t. And one has to wonder if the urgency for the world to find some kind of working resolution to this impasse would be a little stronger if it weren’t playing out in the remote ends of the earth.