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A debacle over whaling has Icelandic Minister of Food, Agriculture, and Fisheries, Svandís Svavarsdóttir under pressure to resign

Icelandic Minister of Food, Agriculture, and Fisheries, Svandís Svavarsdóttir, is facing increasing pressure to resign after a report revealed that she acted unlawfully by imposing a ban on whaling at the beginning of the 2023 season.

The Green Party representative is under attack from various quarters, with speculation rife that a vote of no confidence in the Minister will pass at the next Icelandic Parliament meeting.

On 07 July 2023, Hvalur hf., a whaling company, filed a complaint with the Parliamentary Ombudsman concerning the regulation postponing the start of the whaling season. This action followed the Minister’s proposal of a draft regulation based on an Expert Opinion from the professional council on animal welfare, dated 16 June 2023.

The Expert Opinion concluded, stating, “The Expert Panel finds that many of the indispensable conditions necessary for gunshot hunting of wild cetaceans cannot be maintained during large whale hunting. This conclusion is supported by evidence and expert opinions, leading to the assessment that the current methods of whale hunting are incompatible with animal welfare laws.” Additionally, it focused on the alignment of whale hunting practices with animal welfare laws, emphasizing that the legal interpretation of whether animal welfare laws cover whales remains a subject of legal consideration.

Citing this Expert Opinion, the Minister decided to postpone the start of the season, prompting an investigation by the Parliamentary Ombudsman.

In its report on 05 January 2024, the Ombudsman found, among other things, that the regulation on the suspension of the start of whaling lacked a sufficiently clear basis in whaling law. Furthermore, it noted that the issuance and preparation of the regulation did not comply with the requirements of proportionality.

The report acknowledged the ministry’s argument that animal welfare considerations could be factored into regulations based on the Whaling Act. However, it pointed out that when the whaling laws were enacted in 1949, the primary objective was the protection and maintenance of the whale population. Despite growing emphasis on animal welfare, including at the International Whaling Commission level, the law has not been adjusted accordingly.

The Ministry of Food, Agriculture, and Fisheries refutes allegations that Svandís Svavarsdóttir disregarded the advice of the Ministry’s experts when deciding on a temporary whaling ban last summer. An announcement on the ministry’s website asserts, “The decision of the Minister of Food to temporarily postpone the start of whaling season in 2023 was in accordance with the assessment and advice of the ministry’s experts.” Contrary claims are deemed false, despite leaked memos to the Icelandic newspaper Morgunblaðin revealing that Ministry experts had cautioned against such a ban.

Now, coalition party colleagues are actively opposing the Minister, aiming to force her resignation. The Alþingi is set to reconvene on Monday, 22 January 2024, with expectations that the motion of no confidence will be brought forth during the parliamentary session.

Minister Svandís Svavarsdóttir clearly believes that the ombudsman’s opinion does not call for her to consider her position as a minister.

Defending her position the Minister wrote on 05 January:

“The representative of Althingi has now completed the discussion of the complaint of Hval hf. due to the postponement of the beginning of the season last summer. In his opinion, it is stated that there was not a sufficiently clear legal support for the provision of the regulation and that it would have been better to comply with the requirements of averages. The ombudsman also believes that building power on animal welfare views similar to the measures taken in June. It is very important in my opinion that regulations and legal environment reflect increased demands for animal welfare in general in society and it can certainly be said that it is long overdue to bring the legislation up to date in this subject. Discussion throughout society about the importance of animal welfare has increased steadily in recent years, and applies to all professions that these views weigh heavily on any kind of use of animals.
“There was nothing else possible for a responsible minister than to react in a critical moment. On the 19th. Last June, the opinion of the professional council on animal welfare was heard, where it came to an unconclusive conclusion that the fishing trip used to hunt long-range fishing was not in accordance with the animal welfare law. Therefore, my assessment and the Ministry at the time was that I had no other choice, as a minister responsible for animal welfare, but to act immediately and postpone the start of the hunting season, until it would be considered whether it could be possible to improve hunting methods. The welfare of the animals was in the way of my decision-making, working towards the goal that these animals did not experience unbearable death while hunting.
“It is clear to everyone that the public has called for a clear framework on animal welfare. They show thousands of reports of bad treatment of animals that come to the Food Agency each year and great and growing debate about whether whale hunting has a future. It is clear in the opinion of the Ombudsman that the 1949 Whaling Act is based on the goals of the use of the Whaling Institute, and that there is no clear provision for animal welfare. It’s that time lapse that leads to the commissioner concludes that there is not a clear enough legal support for the regulation of the one I set last summer. I take this Ombudsman’s conclusion seriously and even though the Ombudsman does not direct specific recommendations to me, I intend to strive for changes so that these outdated laws are brought to the modern world.”
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