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Last Updated:  Thursday, 3 April, 2003, 11:06 GMT 12:06 UK
Iceland bids to resume whaling
By Alex Kirby
BBC News Online environment correspondent

Iceland has revealed its plans to resume whaling, 13 years after its crews last fired their harpoons.

Fin whale on surface   Noaa
This is commercial whaling in a threadbare disguise
Vassili Papastavrou, Ifaw
It says the whaling will be for research, which is allowed despite the present moratorium on commercial whaling.

Japan also catches whales in the name of science, and only Norway kills them for straightforward commercial purposes.

Conservationists say they think Iceland's plans amount to a thinly-veiled decision to resume commercial whaling.

It intends to catch 100 minkes, 100 fin whales, and 50 sei whales over two years, with the hunt starting this year or next. The plans were disclosed by the Reykjavik newspaper Morgunbladid.

It quoted the Fisheries Minister, Arni Matthiesen, as saying the aim was to collect data on "the impact of whales on the ocean ecosystem".

Research loophole

He said Iceland's scientists would investigate cetaceans' diet, their distribution and numbers, and their interaction with other marine species.

The newspaper reported the results of what it said was the latest whale survey in Icelandic waters:

  • 44,000 minkes, showing little increase except north of Iceland
  • 24,000 fin whales, "a significant increase"
  • humpbacks, rising by 11% annually since the 1970s.
Whaling is regulated by the International Whaling Commission (IWC), which in 1986 adopted a moratorium on all commercial whaling.

Blue whales on surface   Noaa
Iceland rejected ban on trade in blue whales
It remains in force, though under the Commission's rules any member can catch unlimited numbers of any species in the name of research.

Japan's scientific whaling programme killed almost 700 whales of several species in the Antarctic and north Pacific in 2002.

Norway is not bound by the moratorium, because it objected to it when it was introduced. It caught about 700 north Atlantic minke whales last year.

Iceland says it will not resume commercial whaling before 2006, and then only on the basis of sound science and effective management.

Disputed vote

Between 1986 and 1989 it caught 312 fin and 70 sei whales for research. It left the IWC in 1992 but rejoined in 2002, voting for its own readmission, which was approved by a majority of one.

Two fin whales' tail flukes   Noaa
Fin whales: In the harpooners' sights
It rejoined on condition that it was allowed to register its objection to the moratorium. A number of IWC members believe it should not be allowed to do so.

Iceland says fin, sei and minke whales are abundant enough for it to resume catches. The IWC is uncertain how many north Atlantic minkes there are.

The Red List of IUCN-The World Conservation Union says fin and sei whales are endangered, and north Atlantic minkes near-threatened.

The International Fund for Animal Welfare (Ifaw) says Mr Matthiesen will present the research plan to the IWC scientific committee at the commission's meeting in June.

Looking eastwards

It quotes him as saying other factors will need resolving, especially "international trade in whale products".

Northern right whale breaching   Noaa
The northern right whale: Clinging to existence
"The Icelandic market is very small, hence it is a precondition for any whaling around Iceland to be able to export whale products to the Japanese market."

Vassili Papastavrou, an Ifaw whale biologist, told BBC News Online: "This is commercial whaling in a threadbare disguise.

"Iceland has not yet made the decision to go ahead, and we urge it to look to the future, which is quite clearly whale-watching rather than whaling."

Protection rejected

Most of the great whales are protected under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (Cites).

But when Iceland joined Cites in 2000, it refused to be bound by bans on trade in products from several species, including the very rare blue whale.

Under the Berne Convention on European wildlife, Iceland has also rejected the listing of the Northern right whale, so rare in the eastern Atlantic it is sighted only a few times each decade.

Images courtesy of US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

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06 Mar 02  |  Asia-Pacific

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