Page last updated at 17:33 GMT, Friday, 25 September 2009 18:33 UK

Iceland plans big whalemeat trade

By Richard Black
Environment correspondent, BBC News website

Whaling boats
Hvalur's catcher boats pulled in 125 fin whales this year

The company behind Iceland's fin whaling industry is planning a huge export of whalemeat to Japan.

This summer, Hvalur hf caught 125 fins - a huge expansion on previous years.

The company's owner says he will export as much as 1,500 tonnes to Japan. This would substantially increase the amount of whalemeat in the Japanese market.

The export would be legal because these nations are exempt from the global ban on trading whalemeat, but conservation groups doubt its commercial viability.

Last year, Hvalur hf exported about 65 tonnes of whalemeat to Japan, a consignment that owner Kristjan Loftsson described as a "loss-leader".

But following this year's huge catch, he believes the next one can make money.

This is our best year yet - we're very happy about that
Gunnar Bergmann Jonsson
Icelandic minke whaler

"We'll get a good price - we're intending to make a profit, that's for sure," he told BBC News.

Mr Loftsson said he had now suspended fin whaling for this season, having caught 125 from a quota of 150.

The remaining 25 can be carried over into next year's hunting season.

This compares with a total of seven caught in the previous three years.

The fin is globally listed as an endangered species, though Icelandic marine scientists maintain stocks are big enough locally to sustain a hunt of this size.

EU centre

New quotas were controversially set by the government of Geir Haarde just before it left office in January.

The new left-green coalition government has promised to review the situation, but has so far chosen not to revoke the five-year quotas set by its predecessor.

Johanna Sigurdardottir
Johanna Sigurdardottir's government is to review whaling policy

The government has formally applied to join the EU, and it is entirely possible that the EU would demand an end to whaling as a condition of Iceland's entry.

The application still has to be endorsed in a referendum - and some conservationists believe Mr Loftsson is using whaling as a way to lobby against EU membership.

"I think he is holding Icelandic politicians hostages to fortune," said Arni Finnsson of the Iceland Nature Conservation Association (INCA).

"He's saying that 'unless I can do this, you would be denying Iceland $40m in export income' - and how can you argue against that if you're a politician?"

The $40m figure was cited by the Fisheries Ministry under Mr Haarde's government, said Mr Finnsson, as being the size of the potential annual export market.

Election issue?

Along with other conservation organisations, INCA is adamantly opposed to trading in whalemeat, which they see as something with the potential to increase hunting in various parts of the world.

The trade is generally banned under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES).

Objection - A country formally objects to the IWC moratorium, declaring itself exempt. Example: Norway
Scientific - A nation issues unilateral 'scientific permits'; any IWC member can do this. Example: Japan
Aboriginal - IWC grants permits to indigenous groups for subsistence food. Example: Alaskan Inupiat

But Iceland and Japan - along with a handful of other countries - lodged reservations, as the treaty permits, and so are exempt.

Conservation groups doubt that such a huge export of meat to Japan can be profitable.

A consignment of anything approaching 1,500 tonnes would mark a major expansion of the amount of meat available on the Japanese market each year.

The exact tonnage caught by Japan's whale and dolphin hunts varies each year, but 4,000 tonnes would be a reasonable ballpark figure.

Conservationists have raised the possibility that Japan's new government will re-address its whaling policies.

But Yukio Hatoyama's pre-election position appears close to that of his predecessor, holding scientific whaling to be a sovereign right and promoting the resumption of commercial whaling on abundant stocks.

Fresh supplies

Hunting for the much smaller minke whales in Icelandic waters, meanwhile, will probably end next week, with 80 caught so far.

"This is our best year yet - we're very happy about that," said Gunnar Bergmann Jonsson, head of the minke whalers' association.

"We didn't start freezing any meat before around 15th/20th August - we sold it all fresh - now we're just freezing so we have something for restaurants and stores over the winter."

Mr Jonsson said the minke whalers were also interested in exporting if the fin whale consignment proved successful.

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