Would you eat Shamu? The ethics of sampling whale in Iceland

Like many travelers, I’m convinced that one of the best ways to explore a local culture is through its traditional foods. And in Iceland, that ethos can translate to some controversial choices – including my $15 minke whale appetizer at Reykjavik’s Grill Market restaurant.

By Laura Bly/USAT


Thinly sliced, dark red and delicious, the fork-tender steak tasted like a sweet if gamey version of filet mignon. But consumption of whale meat, on the rise here since Iceland resumed limited hunting when a 20-year moratorium ended in 2006, continues to generate an emotional debate that shows no sign of ebbing.

The International Fund for Animal Welfare opposes all whaling – including that of the minke, which is not considered an endangered species – because it claims “there is no humane way to kill a whale.” Launched in Iceland this summer, the group’s “Meet Us Don’t Eat Us” campaignestimates that up to 40% of local whale meat is sold to visitors, and encourages them to book whale watching trips in lieu of nibbling “Moby Dick on a Stick.”

In September, President Obama initiated potential diplomatic sanctionsagainst Iceland for its commercial whaling, including possible limits on cabinet-level visits to the country. And last month, Iceland’s international airport stopped selling minke whale meat to departing tourists after anti-whaling activists pointed out that importation of all whale products is illegal in the European Union, United States and other countries under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES).

Not surprisingly, Iceland’s President Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson sees things differently.

Over an interview that included his wife’s scrumptious version of another Icelandic specialty, cod livers (think faintly fishy foie gras), 68-year-old Grímsson defended his country’s centuries-old whaling tradition, noting that whale meat was a dietary staple for most of his generation.

“Utilizing the resources of the ocean has been essential to our survival,” says Grímsson, who defends Iceland’s management of fish stocks as one of the world’s best and finds it “paradoxical” that the United States allows Alaskan Eskimos to kill endangered bowhead whales as a subsistence tradition.

So, do I feel guilty about scarfing one of Shamu’s relatives?

It’s complicated.

Yes, whales are highly intelligent beings, but so are pigs – and that hasn’t stopped me from enjoying pork tenderloin. I’ve eaten reindeer in Finland and kangaroo in Australia, and although I’d never knowingly order filet of tiger or another on-the-edge-of-oblivion species, the worldwide population of common minke whale is stable and “well above the thresholds for a threatened category,” according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources. I can understand the whalers’ “cultural imperialism” charge, too: Devout Hindus consider cows to be sacred, for example, but don’t advocate a world-wide ban on beef.

Readers, what’s your view? Would you try whale meat, or do you buy the “meet us, don’t eat us” argument?

~ by FSVSF Admin on 19 December, 2011.

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