Iceland Cancels Whale Hunt

An Icelandic whaling company says strict Japanese regulations prevent it from selling contaminated meat from endangered fin whales.

iceland whalingThe tails of two fin whales caught off the western coast of Iceland in 2009. (Photo: Halldor Kolbeins/AFP/Getty Images)

by David Kirby

Endangered fin whales in the far North Atlantic Ocean have received a reprieve from being hunted—at least for now.

On Thursday, the Icelandic company Hvalur hf said it will cancel this summer’s hunt for fin whales, the world’s second-largest animal. The company, Iceland’s leading whaling outfit, had planned to kill up to 155 whales this year. Most of that meat was to be exported to Japan.

Iceland’s whale hunt is conducted in violation of the International Whaling Commission’s global ban on commercial whaling. Fin whales are listed as endangered throughout their range under the United States’ Endangered Species Act.

Kristján Loftsson, managing director of Hvalur, blamed Japanese import regulations for making sales of whale meat in that country difficult, if not impossible.

“Our problem with the Japanese is that they are analyzing for PCB contaminants in the blubber of the whales, using methods that are 40 years old and very inaccurate,” Loftsson said. “We have to give up because we don’t know what will come out of this analysis.”

Loftsson said Japan is the only country not to use updated methods for testing whale meat for PCBs, as established by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization.

But Kate O’Connell, a marine wildlife consultant for the Animal Welfare Institute, said Loftsson’s claim was “misleading.” She said Japan previously blocked whale meat imports from Hvalur because of contamination with pesticides and that the regulationson pesticides do not apply to marine mammal meat.

“In 2013, a shipment of Hvalur whale products was tested and found to contain levels of [the pesticides] aldrin and dieldrin above the Japanese food safety limits,” O’Connell said in an email. “As a result, Japanese officials have stated that they require testing of whale shipments both prior to and following import due to concerns about contaminant levels.”

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Japanese food-safety laws are among the strictest in the world, O’Connell said. “The ‘permissible’ levels of aldrin and dieldrin in Japanese foodstuffs are lower than what would be considered acceptable in many other countries,” she said. “Their methodologies do require more lengthy and in-depth testing and take longer, but I imagine consumers in Japan are grateful for this.”

Whatever the reason for Hvalur’s decision, wildlife conservationists applauded the move.

“This is fabulous news that Mr. Loftsson, who is the driving force and individual behind the Iceland hunts, has decided he’s not going to hunt whales this year,” said Phil Kline, senior oceans campaigner for Greenpeace.

Vanessa Williams-Grey, senior whaling campaigner at Whale and Dolphin Conservation, said in a statement, “Harpooning fin whales and shipping their meat halfway round the world to Japan has always been as crazy as it is cruel.”

“It is well documented that whale meat contains high levels of toxins, and much of the meat exported by Loftsson’s company sits, unwanted, in frozen stockpiles,” Williams-Grey added. “It seems that Kristján Loftsson has finally realized that his fin whaling has no future. The end of commercial whaling has moved a step closer today.”

Although Japan has rejected whale meat from Iceland in past years because of high toxin levels, Kline said that was not the only reason for Hvalur’s decision.

“They are under pressure in multiple other ways,” he said. “The U.S. government has maintaineddiplomatic measures against Iceland in the past couple of years, which has been bothersome to politicians who have to discuss whales when meeting with U.S. officials.”

Kline added that Icelandic whale meat had been blocked from entering some European ports in the past and that some major shipping lines have refused to transport the product.

It is not clear whether Hvalur will resume hunting fin whales.

“We should remember that Loftsson stopped whaling before in 2011 and 2012, yet resumed whaling in 2013,” O’Connell said.

Loftsson said if the Japanese “change their attitude, we’ll start again. But if they don’t, we will not do anything.”

He added that his decision had nothing to do with international pressure against whaling.

“I don’t care about these people, this anti-whaling movement,” Loftsson said. “They are against everything. You name it, they don’t support it.”

Even if Hvalur permanently cancels its fin whale hunt, other Icelandic companies still slaughter minke whales for their meat.

“It’s predominantly consumed by people visiting Iceland,” Kline said. “But if tourists would go there to greet the whales rather than eat them, [the Icelanders] would no longer hunt them.”

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