Tue, Oct 14, 2003 - Page 16 News List

Renewed whaling attracts hungry tourists to Iceland

After more than a decade without whaling, Icelanders now shun the meat which is mostly served to curious foreign tourists

By Anna Peltola  /  REUTERS , REYKJAVIK

On a cold and dark autumn evening, the Trir Frakkar restaurant in Reykjavik is packed with groups of mainly foreign diners pondering whether to opt for the fish course or go for something a bit more beefy.

"We had the smoked puffin and whale sashimi. Good choice," says a North American tourist. "How many people do you know who can say they've eaten puffin and whale?"

When Iceland resumed whaling after a 14-year break in August, environmentalists warned tourists to shun the country.

But some tourists really don't mind that the North Atlantic nation offering popular whale-watching tours also serves the massive sea mammal on a plate.

"We sell most of our whale meat to tourists," said Tyrfingur Tyrfingsson, chef and owner of the popular Humarhusid or "lobster house" restaurant in central Reykjavik.

"We had a couple here, Americans. The man wanted to try whale but the wife said she would divorce him if he did. And she really meant it," Tyrfingsson said.

He said he had put whale on the menu whenever any was available over the past 14 years when Iceland abided by an international moratorium on whaling.

Then, the fresh meat was sourced from animals that occasionally washed ashore or became tangled in fishing nets.

Tender tail

Humarhusid's tender whale sashimi -- raw meat served the Japanese way with wasabi horseradish and soy sauce -- is made from a minke whale caught in a fishing net a few months ago.

"The tail meat is good for sashimi," Tyrfingsson said, but added that his restaurant bought the meat in big lumps of 6kg to 8kg and did not know what part of the animal they were.

At Trir Frakkar, one fin whale has fed around 150,000 people since it was put in the freezer in 1989.

"Eighty percent of them are tourists from the US, the UK, France and Germany. Japanese tourists come and eat whale sashimi, and after that the whale steak, and after that whale sashimi again for dessert," said chef Ulfar Eysteinsson.

The Japanese, who have a tradition of eating whale, prefer fin whale -- the second-biggest after the blue whale -- to the minke, said Eysteinsson, who runs Trir Frakkar.

The International Whaling Commission banned commercial whaling in 1986, saying seven out of the 13 great whale species were endangered. Iceland bowed to international pressure three years later and docked its whaling ships.

This summer, however, it said it would restart scientific whaling to study the impact of whales on the ecosystem, especially fish stocks which are crucial to the economy.

Iceland says there are 70,000 minkes in the north Atlantic ocean and that the species is far from endangered.

This year's catch will be 38 minkes, and after that Iceland hopes to take out 100 minkes, 100 fin whales and 50 sei whales annually. The latter two are considered endangered species.

Environmental groups expressed outrage at Iceland's plans, saying the country really wants the catch for the meat, not for research purposes.

Although three quarters of Icelanders support resuming whaling, according to opinion polls, many teenagers have never tasted whale meat. Only a few restaurants serve it, and it is not easy to find in supermarkets.

Lost generation

Tyrfingsson said his daughter Svava, nine, has never tried it. "I don't think the kids would like it," he said.

Eysteinsson's grandchildren, however, like the taste.

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