Iceland’s Largest Bird Cliff Látrabjarg Protected

Puffins - Westfjords - Lundar - Látrabjarg

One of Europe’s largest bird cliffs and Iceland’s largest bird nesting area, Látrabjarg, was officially protected yesterday by Iceland’s Minister for the Environment. Hundreds of thousands of birds breed on the cliff yearly, including some at-risk species. The protection is meant to safeguard the area’s biodiversity and the habitat it provides to a wide variety of birds.

Látrabjarg is located in the Westfjords region and is in fact the westernmost point in Iceland. A staggering number of seabirds nest there every year, including one of the largest populations of razorbills in the world: over 160,000 nesting pairs. Around 226,000 guillemot pairs, 118,000 thick-billed murres, 100,000 fulmar pairs, puffins (50,00 pairs), and kittiwakes (some 32,000 pairs) also nest along Látrabjarg. Besides being a key bird habitat, the cliff also features settlement and cultural relics, as well as reflecting the geology of the Westfjords.

“Today is a big day in nature conservation as we protect Látrabjarg, one of the most spectacular bird cliffs in the country and one of the largest in the North Atlantic,” Minister for the Environment Guðmundur Ingi Guðbrandsson stated. “The cliff is a globally important seabird habitat, with one of the largest razorbill settlements in the world and about half of the Icelandic population. There has also been an increase in tourists going to the cliff in recent years, and it is therefore very important to manage traffic in a systematic way and strengthen supervision of the area. My hope is that birds and humans can enjoy the area for the foreseeable future.”

Yesterday’s signing took place in collaboration with locals of the area, who have been calling for the cliff’s protection for years. The Icelandic government initially decided to protect Látrabjarg in 2004.

Páll Stefánsson.

Iceland’s Highland to Become Europe’s Largest National Park

Iceland’s Central Highland region is set to become the largest national park in Europe, covering around 30% of Iceland. This would also make it the national park that represents the highest percentage of the total area of a country, with over 40,000 km² of the total 103,000 km² surface area of Iceland. A bill outlining the park’s establishment was introduced in Parliament by Iceland’s Minister for the Environment Guðmundur Ingi Guðbrandsson on November 30.

“The Highland holds one of the greatest natural treasures that we Icelanders collectively possess, so it is a logical measure to establish a national park there,” stated Guðmundur Ingi. “It is quite clear that the establishment of the Highland National Park would be a huge advantage for Icelandic tourism and, in fact, for the national economy as a whole, especially during the recovery period after the coronavirus pandemic.” Guðmundur called the proposed park Iceland’s largest contribution to nature conservation, adding that it was important to preserve the highland for future generations.

Park Will Double Protected Areas in Highland

Iceland’s highland region is one of the largest unpopulated regions in Europe and an important breeding ground for birds such as pink-footed geese. Around half of the proposed area of the park is already protected, including under Vatnajökull National Park, Hofsjökull glacier, and popular hiking area Landmannalaugar. The proposed park would unite already protected areas and expand them to create a single, unified Highalnd National Park. The park is to be separated into six administrative regions to be jointly managed by municipal and state authorities. A special board will be established to oversee the park’s management, consisting of local and state representatives as well as other interested parties.

Read More: Proposed Highland National Park

Several power plants are currently within the proposed borders of the park – the bill proposes defining them as “peripheral areas” of the park and that the land they occupy not be protected. The Highland National Park is expected to have a positive impact on rural development, creating sustainable employment opportunities both for municipalities bordering the park as well as across the country.

Guðmundur Ingi oversaw the protection of the popular Geysir area and Goðafoss waterfall earlier this year.

Icelandic Government Aims for 35% Lower Emissions By 2030

Dalasýsla náttúra

Iceland’s Prime Minister Katrín Jakobsdóttir presented the government’s updated climate action plan today. Its 48 actions are projected to bring down Iceland’s carbon emissions by 35% by the year 2030, a bigger drop than the country’s international agreements call for. Iceland’s government has set the goal of making the country carbon neutral by 2040.

The plan involves an ISK 46 billion ($333 million/€294 million) investment from the government in 48 actions intended to reduce emissions, 15 of which are new. The actions are varied, including carbon capture from heavy industry, increased domestic vegetable production, and subsidising low emission rental cars. Emphasis has been placed on implementing the measures immediately, and thus 28 have already been launched.

Read More: Iceland’s Plan to Become Carbon Neutral By 2040

Guðmundur Ingi Guðbrandsson, Minister for the Environment and Natural Resources, stated that the plan has turned over a new leaf in Iceland’s climate policy. “With the actions that we have taken and intend to take, we will achieve far more success than international commitments under the Paris Agreement require of us.”

The plan has been uploaded to the Government Consultation Portal, where the public have until September 20 to submit comments and suggestions.

The video below (featuring English subtitles) introduces the updated plan.

Announce ISK 3.5 Billion for Nature Conservation Infrastructure

Minister for the Environment Guðmundur Ingi Guðbrandsson and Minister of Tourism Þórdís Kolbrún Reykfjörð Gylfadóttir announced today extensive plans to build up tourism infrastructure at 130 popular nature sites across the country. The two announced the allocation of ISK 3.5 billion ($28.8m/€25.5m) over the next three years in order to protect Icelandic nature and cultural heritage.

This is the second time the two ministers present jointly on the allocation of funds towards tourism infrastructure. Since last year, infrastructure has been improved at many increasingly popular sites, including Dynjandi waterfall in the Westfjords and Þingvallahraun on the north site of Þingvellir National Park.

The ISK 3.5 billion investment is an increase of more than ISK 1 billion ($8.2m/€7.3m) in funding from last year’s plan. The new plan does not only focus on individual locations, instead taking a holistic approach to nature conservation across areas.

It is estimated that about ISK 1.3 billion ($10.7m/€9.5m) will be devoted specifically to staffing land protection over the next three years. These funds will go toward the recruitment of full-time wardens as well as additional staff during high season at popular tourist sites and protected areas.

“Tourism is one of the foundations of the Icelandic economy, and it all depends on us preserving the magic of Icelandic nature,” stated Þórdís Kolbrún. “Together we will ensure that Icelandic nature and tourism can flourish side by side.”

Report on Economic Impact of Whaling Incites Criticism

A recent report on the economic impact of whaling has incited criticism and accusations of bias, RÚV reports. A primary point of contention is that the report characterises nature conservation groups as terrorist organisations and suggests that Icelandic legislators should perhaps consider levying anti-terrorist legislation against them, as is done in other countries.

The report was co-authored by economist Oddgeir Ágúst Ottesen at the Institute of Economic Studies. Minister for the Environment Guðmundur Ingi Guðbrandsson expressed some disbelief about the terrorist characterisation and said that it made him wonder about the authors’ personal motivations. Moreover, he says that he has some doubts about the correlations that the report draws.

Rannveig Grétarsdóttir, the CEO of whale watching company Elding and the chair of the Whale Watching Association of Iceland, leveled similar critiques earlier in the week during a current events TV program where she and Oddgeir debated the report and its claims. Rannveig didn’t mince words, calling the report one-sided propaganda.

“There is a lot of propaganda in the report,” said Rannveig, continuing by saying that its findings read like foregone conclusions. It discussed the impact of whale watching on whaling, but not the reverse, she said, and neglected to get the opinion of anyone in the whale watching industry.

“It’s very strange,” she said. “I have 40% of the whale watching in the country and am the chair of the Whale Watching Association, and no one talked to me.” Oddgeir contested this, saying that he had spoken to staff at whale watching companies.

Doesn’t have to be one or the other

Oddgeir also dismissed the claim that whaling’s low profit margin and the overall negative press earned by the industry should be taken into account when considering whether or not to allow whaling to continue.

“It doesn’t really matter for society what the [company’s] earnings are. It doesn’t hurt society as a whole that the [whaling] company pays good wages and turns a small profit,” he said, versus a scenario in which the company made substantial profits but paid low wages. Oddgeir continued by saying that tourism in Iceland had continued to flourish in spite of the fact that whaling has continued, and that whaling has has also not had an impact on the sale of Icelandic fish abroad.

Oddgeir rejected the accusation that he’d written the report with a particular agenda and had already made his mind up about the conclusions he’d draw before he even finished it. He said that it wasn’t a matter of choosing one thing over the other: “Whale watching can absolutely continue, even if there is whaling.”

False correlations

The report asserts that should whaling continue, there would be a 40% increase in Icelandic export revenue, as a result of there being more fish in the country’s coastal waters. This assertion goes far beyond what other organisations, such as the Marine and Freshwater Research Institute, have been willing to state in regards to the whaling industry’s sustainability. For instance, Gísli Víkingsson, a marine biologist at the Marine Institute, said that he believes that whaling is sustainable, but said that he thinks it’s wrong for people to kill whales in order to increase the fish stock. The claim about increased export potential also rings false to Minister for the Environment Guðmundur Ingi Guðbrandsson.

“…I think we need to take a very close look at this part about the ecology of the ocean, where the conclusion drawn is that by hunting more whales, we increase the number of fish in the sea,” Guðmundur remarked. “[T]hey come to the conclusion that there’s a direct relationship between the two. Although there’s a connection, [the report] doesn’t take into account the costs that would result from starting to increase whaling, for example, as regards Iceland’s reputation.”

Ptarmigan Hunting Season Extended

The Ministry for the Environment and Natural Resources has decided to extend the annual hunting season by three days this year, increasing it to 15 days from last year’s 12, reports. Ptarmigan season begins today, October 26th, and will take place on the next four subsequent weekends until it ends on Sunday, November 25th.

Rock ptarmigan are still hunted in Iceland as they are considered a delicacy, often consumed on Christmas Eve. The Icelandic Institute of Natural History claims the preservation status the ptarmigan gained in 2003 has helped immensely to restore the numbers. And indeed, the estimated total number of ptarmigan in Iceland as of this spring was 173,000, up from 132,000 in 2016.

A noticeable decrease in ptarmigan hunting has also taken place since 2005. Last season, the hunting quota for last past hunting season allowed for 57,000 ptarmigans to be shot.

The recommended number of ptarmigans to be hunted this year is 67,000. Based on the number of hunters that have registered in previous years, this would come out to an average of ten ptarmigans a hunter. However, the current ban on the sale of ptarmigan remains in place.

The Ministry for the Environment credits the increased stability of the ptarmigan population for the extension of the hunting season and explained that adding the extra days will also hopefully reduce stress on the hunting grounds.