Whaling has a long history in Iceland. Whales have been hunted for meat and oil along the country's shores for centuries. Starting in 1883, the waters were whaled intensely. Whale populations fell so sharply that the government had to ban whaling for 10 years, beginning in 1915. Icelandic whalers clearly don't have a history of moderation; the law was repealed in 1928, and whaling continued as normal.
Whaling has been hotly disputed since the mid-1940's, when it became abundantly obvious that the practices of some countries were not sustainable. At the heart of the debate is concern for whales and the ecosystems in which they live. Whale populations have crashed as a result of commercial whaling. The blue whale population, for example, fell 99 percent in the 1870-1970 period. While not all populations have suffered so heavily, humpback whale populations have fallen about 90 percent. The popularly hunted minke whale showed similar levels of loss. Without a moratorium on whaling, the populations of these whales may never again reach their historical abundance.
Couple the fallen populations with whales slow reproduction rate and you have the recipe for a population that will recover only incredibly slowly. In some whales, sexual maturity isn't reached until seven to 10 years of age. Females only give birth to one calf at a time, and then spend a year or more nursing it. While this method of reproduction produces few young, calves are more likely to survive to adulthood.
Putting aside any concern for the whales themselves, it is important to consider their role in many ecosystems. As predators of a wide variety of plankton, fish and squid, whales are sometimes responsible for helping to keep populations of smaller animals in check.
The burden of evidence points to not whaling at all, at least not until the populations have had some time to recover. This is also the position of the International Whaling Commission (IWC). After all, it's better for whalers to wait if waiting ensures the survival of the whaling industry.
Some countries think they know better than the IWC and its scientists. Iceland is one of them. These countries have taken advantage of the IWC's scientific research program. The program allows a few whales annually to be taken for scientific research purposes. But really, Iceland just used this program as a way to circumvent the moratorium, approving the murder of 39 minke whales in 2005 alone.
In 2006, Iceland decided to restart its commercial hunt. In addition to the 39 minke whales that will be taken for "research," the country will be catching 30 minke and nine fin whales. Fin whales are endangered, while minke whales are at slightly lower risk, continuing the moratorium on other, more endangered species.
The decision has been met, rightly, with scorn from the European Union. Icelandic leaders responded to criticism of their actions by saying that whale stocks have recovered. With the levels of depletion sustained by many whale populations and the long generation time of most whales, this "recovery" simply could not have occurred in the past 20 years.
Iceland is setting a dangerous standard. They've essentially decided that they're better than the rest of the world and that they no longer have to follow the restrictions of the IWC.
Iceland isn't the only country that has fought the IWC's decisions. Norway has argued against the ban through appropriate diplomatic channels, and Japan has been taking whales for supposed research purposes, like Iceland, for years. If Iceland doesn't suffer serious repercussions for its lapse back into whaling, what is to stop other countries from following suit?
Variety Editor April Wright is a sophomore from Eagan, Minn. She majors in English and in biology.