Expert Proposes Ban on Hunting Puffins

puffins iceland

The South Iceland Nature Research Centre proposes a full ban on puffing hunting in Iceland in a new report. Iceland’s puffin population has been below sustainable limits for a long time and its outlook is poor. The Centre’s Director and a Doctor of Biology Erpur Snær Hansen told RÚV that changing hunting regulations would take political will.

Around 20% of the global population of puffins nest in Iceland’s Westman Islands, with other, smaller colonies across the country. The average puffin population in Iceland has shrunk by 70% in the last thirty years. The change is attributed to a scarcity of food for the birds caused by rising sea temperatures. Hunting, of course, causes the birds’ numbers to decline even further.

Population set to keep decreasing, even if hunting is banned

Erpur says The total puffin population in Iceland numbers around 3 million nesting pairs. If puffing hunting is banned, that population is expected to decrease by over 10% over the next decade. If hunting continues to be permitted, however, the population is expected to decrease by 30% or even as much as 50% within that same period.

“This is not sustainable hunting, and the Wildlife Act clearly states that it should be,” Erpur explains. He adds that the current regulations around puffing hunting mean that not all puffins hunted are reported, so the impact on the population could be greater than projected.

Political will needed to ban puffing hunting

Erpur goes on to explain that, unlike ptarmigan or reindeer hunting, for which quotas can be set and changed yearly by inserting a provision into the regulation, puffing hunting is subject to a different set of laws. In order to ban puffing hunting, the Minister of the Environment would need to change that law. “Maybe it can just be said that the political will to do something about it was not strong enough, or that the pressure from interested parties was therefore greater,” Erpur mused.

Minister of Fisheries Svandís Svavarsdóttir received criticism for imposing a temporary ban on whale hunting this year, a decision that also caused tension within the governing coalition.

Luxury Hotel’s Impact on Protected Valley Raises Concerns

þjórsárdalur

The company building a luxury hotel and baths in the protected Þjórsárdalur valley has yet to negotiate payments for water usage at the site. The Icelandic Institute for Natural History called it a mistake to permit the development, as it entails disturbing the landscape. The company building the hotel is a subsidiary of the Blue Lagoon and holds a 40-year lease on the land.

The hotel and baths are being constructed within a protected area, on a plot owned by the state. The company Rauðukambar ehf., a subsidiary of the Blue Lagoon, is leasing the 130,000 square metre plot for just over ISK 400,000 [$3,000, €2,800] per month. Payments to the state for water usage are yet to be negotiated.

Prime Minister’s Office authorised construction

Since the construction is on public land, it was subject to the approval of the Prime Minister’s Office, which has authorised the project according to the conditions of the protected area. Prime Minister Katrín Jakobsdóttir herself was present at the official start of construction, digging the first shovelful into Rauðukambar mountain alongside the mayor of Skeiða- og Gnúpverjahreppur municipality, where the hotel will be located, and the developers.

The hotel is being built into Rauðukambar mountain, reportedly to minimize its visibility. The Icelandic Institute for Natural History has stated its opinion that the hotel and baths do not comply with the objectives of protection of landscapes and natural monuments as they cause irreversible damage and change the natural landscape.

In Focus: Tourism Development in Protected Areas

The parent company of the Blue Lagoon is also constructing a luxury hotel in a second protected area in the Icelandic Highland, Kerlingarfjöll. According to original plans for the area, the new hotel was to be one of the largest not just in the Highland, but in all of Iceland. The ambitious nature of the project raised concerns about environmental degradation and in 2015, the Icelandic Environment Association (Landvernd) appealed the construction, the first stage of which had begun without any environmental impact assessment.

Whaling Has Little Economic Impact on Iceland

hvalur whaling in iceland

Whaling in Iceland has little direct impact on the Icelandic economy. Whaling has not turned a profit in recent years for Hvalur hf., the only company that has been whaling commercially in Iceland in the recent past. While people abroad almost always see Iceland’s participation in whaling in a negative light, those views do not seem to have a measurable negative effect on Iceland’s economy, neither affecting the sale or export of Icelandic goods nor Iceland’s popularity as a tourist destination.

These are the conclusions of a report on the economic impact of whaling in Iceland, written by consulting company Intellecon for the Ministry of Fisheries, Food, and Agriculture. The report only considers whaling’s direct economic impact on Iceland; not biological, regional, or political factors. Neither does it consider the ecological impact of the practice.

Less than 1% of total seafood export

According to data gathered by the report’s authors, the export of whale products has never amounted to more than 0.6% of the total export value of seafood from Iceland – that record was reached in 2016. Despite not being an economically significant industry, however, whaling is important for the individuals it employs, who earn a higher salary whaling and processing whale meat than they would in most other industries. It bears noting, however, that the work is shift work and seasonal, usually lasting four months per year. Around 120 people worked on processing whale meat last season and the average salary of those whaling and processing whale meat was between ISK 1.7-2 million per month [$12,900, €11,800].

Read More: Sea Change

The report details various difficulties in selling whale products due to restrictions and other factors. It mentioned that “It has been difficult to get permission to sell the whale meal, e.g. in feed for pigs, as it has not met the conditions for such use.” While Hvalur hf. has burned whale oil on its ships, “Selling it for other uses has proven impossible, in part due to trade barriers on whale products.”

Hvalur hf. has only hunted fin whales in recent years, and their meat has only been sold to Japan. The consumption of whale meat has decreased rapidly there, from 233,000 tonnes in 1962 to only 1-2,000 tonnes in 2021 and 2022. Transporting whale products has also proven difficult in recent years due to pressure from organisations that campaign against whaling and the reluctance of governments to permit the transport of whale products through their countries. As a result, whale meat from Iceland has been transported to Japan across the northerly route, north of Russia and Siberia. Conditions on the route are difficult and require collaboration with Russian icebreakers.

Future of whaling decided this month

While people abroad view Iceland’s whaling in a negative light, the report did not find that these views had any negative economic impact that could be measured. They neither made it more difficult to sell Icelandic products abroad nor did they reduce Iceland’s popularity as a tourist destination.

Iceland’s Fisheries Minister Svandís Svavarsdóttir implemented a temporary ban on whaling on June 20, the day before the whaling season was set to begin. The ban expires at the end of August. Svandís has stated that a decision on the continuation of the controversial practice will be made public before the end of the month.

Protest Job Loss Due to Whaling Ban

Páll Stefánsson. Whaling in Iceland, 2010

Local councils in West Iceland are urging the Minister of Fisheries to lift the ban on whaling implemented just one day before the season was set to begin. The last-minute decision has left some 200 employees of whaling company Hvalur hf. unexpectedly unemployed and will have a significant financial impact on the western region.

On June 20, Minister of Food, Agriculture, and Fisheries Svandís Svavarsdóttir temporarily halted the hunting of fin whales until August 31. The decision followed on the heels of a report that found whaling breached Iceland’s animal welfare legislation. The ban was implemented to enable an investigation on whether it is possible to ensure that hunting conforms to the legislation.

Only one company, Hvalur hf., was set to hunt whales this season. The company is based in Hvalfjörður, West Iceland, and typically employs around 200 people, most from the region, at the height of the hunting season. Both the municipal council of Akranes and the local council of Hvalfjörður have encouraged the Fisheries Minister to lift the whaling ban.

Tax and income losses

The Municipal Council of Akranes (pop. 7,986) published a resolution criticising the timing of the decision. “The ban was unexpected and a curveball to many Akranes residents who were counting on employment and income during the summer whaling season,” the resolution reads. The council estimates that it will lose tens of millions of ISK (hundreds of thousands of dollars) in local tax income due to the decision, affecting its ability to finance services to residents. The council stated that the ministry should carry out investigations before making such an impactful decision, not the other way around.

The local council of Hvalfjörður has also published a short statement on the temporary whaling ban, stating that its financial impact is significant, both directly and indirectly. “Hvalfjörður’s local council is not taking a stance on whaling with this statement but urges the Minister of Food to reconsider her decision,” the statement concludes.

Delay Issuing Permit for Hydropower Plant

A local council in South Iceland has postponed issuing a permit for the construction of a large hydropower plant on Þjórsá river to consider new information about the project’s potential environmental impacts, Vísir reports. The proposed Hvammsvirkjun hydropower plant would have an estimated capacity of around 95 MW and would create a lagoon with a surface area of 4 square kilometres [1.5 square miles].

Salmon fishermen and conservationists oppose power plant

The locality of Rangarþing ytra’s website states that a new message has been received from the Iceland’s North Atlantic Salmon Fund and the Fishing Association of Þjórsá river (Veiðifélag Þjórsár) calling on the local government to reject the National Power Company of Iceland’s request for a construction permit for the plant. “It was suggested that the matter be postponed until the next extraordinary meeting of the local council to give the locality’s environmental committee the opportunity to discuss the matter, given that new information regarding certain environmental aspects has been received,” the meeting minutes state.

One other local council is required to sign off on the hydropower plant’s construction permit, the council of Skeiðahreppur and Gnúpverjahreppur, and head of the local council Haraldur Þór Jónsson told reports the permit would be processed despite the delay in Rangarþing ytra. The National Power Company applied to the two localities for a construction permit for the plant last December after the project was approved by the National Energy Authority of Iceland.

Energy-intensive industries are largest consumers

The Hvammsvirkjun plant would have an estimated capacity of 95 MW. For comparison, Iceland’s largest hydropower plants are the Kárahnjúkar and Búrfell plants, with respective capacities of 690 KW and 270 KW. Both were built to provide power to aluminium smelters. Hellisheiði Power Station is Iceland’s largest geothermal power plant, with a capacity of 303 MW.

Snæbjörn Guðmundsson of nature conservation organisation Náttúrugrið has expressed concern that the proposed Hvammsvirkjun hydropower plant would be used towards Bitcoin mining, a growing industry in Iceland that is energy-intensive but contributes relatively little to the country’s GDP. The National Power Company has stated that it would not build power plants for the express purpose of providing energy to Bitcoin mining companies.

Bitcoin Mining a Growing “Waste of Energy” in Iceland

Neither Icelandic authorities nor data centres in Iceland will reveal how much energy is used to mine Bitcoin or other digital currencies in Iceland, Snæbjörn Guðmundsson of nature conservation organisation Náttúrugrið told Vísir. Data centres use 30% more energy in Iceland than all Icelandic homes put together, and while the percentage of this energy that goes toward Bitcoin mining is not public knowledge, it could be as high as 90%.

Iceland’s abundance of renewable energy and cheap power has had both data centres and Bitcoin mining operations flocking to the country in recent years to set up shop. Iceland’s cool climate is another benefit, as data centres produce a lot of heat that would require additional energy to cool if located in a warmer climate. Both politicians and environmental activists have questioned the benefit of Bitcoin and digital currency mining operations for the Icelandic nation as well as their impact on the environment.

New hydropower plant could be used to mine Bitcoin

A 2018 report by KPMG stated that around 90% of energy used by data centres in Iceland had gone toward mining Bitcoin. In a column in Vísir, Snæbjörn refers to a recent analysis by Bitcoin expert Jaran Mellerud, who estimates that Bitcoin mining in Iceland uses around 120 MW of power, or around 85% of the 140 MW of power used by the country’s data centres in 2022. These figures have not changed much in recent years despite assertions from Iceland’s National Power Company (Landsvirkjun) that they would reduce the sale of Iceland’s energy to Bitcoin mining operations.

Snæbjörn is concerned that the proposed Hvammsvirkjun hydropower plant in South Iceland’s Þjórsá river would be used to power further Bitcoin mining in Iceland, although the National Power Company has stated that power plants would not be built solely for the energy needs of Bitcoing mining centres.

New York-based Bitcoin mining company told the Wall Street Journal last month that they would expand their operations in Iceland in response to an impending tax on Bitcoin mining in the United States. At the same time, Icelandic energy companies have stated there is no capacity for increased digital currency mining in the country.

“This is a waste of energy that should not be happening in a society like the one we live in today,” Snæbjörn stated.

Kerlingarfjöll Construction Project One of Largest Ever in Highlands

Kerlingarfjöll

The tourist facilities at Kerlingarfjöll in Iceland’s Highland are receiving an overhaul these days to the tune of ISK 2-3 billion [$14-21 million, €13-20 million], RÚV reports. The development includes a luxury hotel and renovations to the campsite. It’s possibly the largest single investment in the Highland region that is not a power station.

Kerlingarfjöll is a mountain range in Iceland’s Highland and one of the most popular tourist destinations within the region. It was operated as a summer ski resort in the 20th century which was dismantled in 2000 due to decreased snowfall. The site is known for the spectacular colours of its rhyolite mountains and hot springs. Kerlingarfjöll was declared a protected area in 2020 by the Icelandic government.

Hotel smaller than planned

The hotel has been downscaled from its original plan, which called for 120 double rooms. In 2016, the Icelandic Environment Association appealed the construction of the hotel to the Environmental and Natural Resources Appeals Committee as the first phase of construction had begun without an environmental assessment having been completed.

The luxury hotel will have space for 50 guests and hostel-like facilities for 30 campers. Along with renovations to the neighbouring campsite, a new restaurant will be opened at the site. The hotel buildings facades will be in dark, earthy colours in order to blend in with the landscape and the construction aims to limit vehicular traffic around the site to improve guests’ experience.

Highland an important breeding ground for birds

The Highland of Iceland is an uninhabited area that covers most of the centre of the country. It is only accessible to humans during the summer, as deep snow and wide rivers make its dirt roads impassable most of the year. The Highland is an important nesting area for many species of birds, with the Þjórsárdalur valley being the single most important breeding ground for pink-footed geese globally.

What’s in a Name: Forestry and Soil Conservation Agencies Debate New Title

forestry

The Environment and Transport Committee of Iceland’s parliament has received a proposal for a new law on forestry and land conservation, which aims to merge the two existing agencies, the Land Conservation Agency and the Forestry Service.

The proposal identifies key issues of the merger between the two agencies. The plan, called “Land and Life,” was created by the Land Conservation Agency and the Forestry Service and outlines their vision for land and forest management through 2031.

Read more: Use of Lodgepole Pine Sparks Feud

The new organization, named “Land and Forest,” has been proposed as the name for the merged agency. However, the Land Conservation Agency has suggested that a better name might be found, given that the proposed name does not reflect the activities of the two agencies.

In a statement, the Soil Conservation Agency noted the need for a “more suitable name” for the new institution. Alternatives proposed include “Land and Life,” “Institute of Land Resources,” and “Earth.”

Read more: First-Ever Joint Policy on Land Reclamation and Reforestation

The existing law on land conservation will still apply, and the merger will not change any ongoing work or projects. The proposed new law identifies the significant benefits of the merger, including streamlined operations and increased efficiency. However, the new organization will have a broader mandate and be better equipped to manage the country’s natural resources effectively.

13th Annual Nature Conservation Award Goes to Ómar Ragnarsson

ómar ragnarsson nature conservation iceland

This past Friday, September 16, Minister of Environment, Energy, and Climate Guðlaugur Þór Þórðarson awarded the 13th annual Nature Conservation Award to Ómar Ragnarsson.

A pioneer for green energy

Ómar, an entertainer and activist, is well-known throughout Iceland for his work in raising environmental awareness. His work in advocating for nature conservation in Iceland is actually the grounds for the prize being award on September 16, his birthday.

Among Ómar’s many other climate actions, he organized a protest walk against the controversial Kárahnjúkar hydroelectric dam and also rode an e-bike from Reykjavík to Akureyri at the age of 75 to advocate for the energy change.

See also: Ómar’s coverage of the Holuhraun eruption

The minister highlighted Ómar’s ability draw attention to environmental issues in an engaging way.

“Icelandic nature would be so much poorer if it weren’t for passionate people who are ready to give everything for it,” Guðlaugur stated at the ceremony. “I, like many Icelanders, am lucky enough to have had Ómar as a window into things that are so incredibly important but few care about. Individuals matter and Ómar Ragnarsson is a clear example of that. It will never be possible to measure what he has done, in his unique way, for Icelandic nature. My generation and many others got to know the nature of Iceland because of the interest and energy of Ómar Ragnarsson. For that I am grateful.”

 

Geysir’s Protected Status Confirmed in Signing Ceremony

iceland nature conservation geysir

Prime Minister Katrín Jakobsdóttir and Minister of Environment, Energy, and Climate Guðlaugur Þór Þórðarsson took part in a ceremony yesterday at Geysir, in which they confirmed the area’s management and protection plan.

The namesake of all other geysers, Geysir is a well-known tourist attraction in Iceland and part of the “Golden Circle,” a popular drive near the capital area. However, many natural sites have been overwhelmed by increased tourism, leading to several sites including Skógafoss and Geysir being designated “at risk” in recent years.

nature conservation geysir iceland
Stjórnarráð Íslands

The Geysir area was originally protected by law in 2020, but this status is just now being recognized in a signing ceremony.

In addition to being a popular tourism destination, Geysir is home to many unique geological features, plant life, and microorganisms, meaning that the area is also important for scientific research. In addition to conserving the Geysir area, the new management plan hopes to place increased emphasis on education on Geysir’s significance.

At the ceremony, Katrín Jakobsdóttir stated: “The conservation of the Geysir area is an important step in nature conservation in Iceland, given its unique natural beauty. The conservation plan confirmed today ensures that future generations will be able to enjoy the area as we do today.”

Minister Guðlaugur added: “This management and protection plan presents ways to ensure that the objectives of conservation are achieved. When developing infrastructure, consideration should be given to local planning […] Development should guide visitors around the area and ensure that its conservation value is maintained.”

Þórdís Björt Sigþórsdóttir, manager of conservation and planning at the Environmental Agency, was also present for the ceremony. She stated that this was a necessary step in nature conservation in Iceland, and one that most Icelanders agree with. Indeed, she notes that many Icelanders were surprised to learn that Geysir was not already a protected area.