Saturday 27 February 2016

A reprieve for Icelandic fin whales this year


With the summer whaling season approaching in Iceland there are signs that fin whales, at least, might be spared the harpoon this year.
 
Hvalur HF, Iceland’s major whaling company, has told local media that fin whales would not be targeted because of problems with its major market, Japan.
 
The Government of Iceland issues annual commercial whaling permits to its whaling companies, despite the International Whaling Commission (IWC) global ban on commercial whaling that has in place since 1986. When the moratorium was passed by majority vote in 1982, Iceland used the IWC “scientific whaling” loophole - as Japan does to the present day - ­to continue whaling. It could have also registered a formal “objection” to the moratorium, and not been bound by it, but chose not to. In 1992, Iceland officially left the IWC in an act of protest. After it rejoined in 2002, Iceland immediately announced it “objected” to the moratorium. Australia and most other countries argued that the objection should not be allowed retrospectively, particularly because Iceland was rejoining at a time when the moratorium was in place, and should be bound by the current conventions.
 
Iceland immediately resumed scientific whaling for minke whales from 2003, and the Icelandic Government began issuing commercial whaling permits, which included fin whales as well as minkes, in 2006. Whaling companies have since been granted increasing commercial quotas by their government, despite seldom meeting the old quotas.
 
Hvalur kills fin whales, leaving the minke whale quotas to other companies. Most of the fin whale meat is sold to Japan, with more than 1,500 tonnes of whale meat arriving in a single shipment to Osaka in 2015. This demonstrates another of the whaling industry’s underhanded tactics.
 
Fin whales are listed as an endangered species by the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN). Because they are threatened with extinction, international trade is prohibited by the Convention on Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) except under exceptional circumstances and only when not for commercial purposes. Unfortunately, the rules under which CITES operates also also has a loophole - one that allows for a country to avoid the trade restriction by simply lodging a formal “reservation”. Not surprisingly Iceland, together with whaling nations Japan and Norway, have made reservations in the case of whale products.
 
The main reason for Hvalur’s cancelling this year’s fin whale hunt is cited as being concern about the level of testing Japan requires to ensure the meat is suitable for human consumption. There is increasing unease in Japan over the toxins being found in whale and dolphin meat, especially from pesticides that are finding their way into the world’s oceans. Three years ago, even a brand of dog food made from Icelandic fin whale meat was removed from shelves in Japan.
 
In addition, a number of countries have raised objections to products from IUCN and CITES listed species transiting through their ports.
 
And there are problems for whalers on the domestic front as well, with some Icelandic Members of Parliament speaking out against whaling in favour of the increasing popularity of whale watching. Even Iceland’s Minister for Foreign Affairs and External Trade, Gunnar Bragi Sveinsson, has recently suggested that Iceland should consider at least scaling down its whaling industry.
 
Could this be a turning point for Icelandic whaling? Perhaps. On the other hand, Hvalur's recent statements might be part of a political ploy to garner domestic attention and support.
 
What is clear is that the governments of nations opposed to commercial whaling, including Australia, need to use this opportunity engage with the Government of Iceland and encourage them to embark on a program to phase out its whaling industry once and for all.


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