By Richard Black
Environment Correspondent, BBC News website
Iceland has announced it is to resume commercial hunting of whales.
Whaling ships have been gearing up for commercial hunting
Icelandic ships will take nine fin whales, an endangered species, and 30 minke whales each year.
In a statement, the fisheries ministry said the nation was dependent on living marine resources, and would keep catches within sustainable limits.
Norway is the only other country to hunt commercially; most are bound by a 20-year moratorium. Currently Iceland hunts minkes for "scientific research".
The scientific plan will conclude at the end of the 2007 season, the government said.
The announcement has angered conservation groups and anti-whaling nations, with some talking of a legal challenge.
The fisheries ministry said hunting could begin as early as next week, and suggested the meat may be exported, which could prove a contentious suggestion as the trade is heavily restricted under international law.
Iceland maintains local stocks are high enough to permit some hunting, despite the endangered status of the fin.
Species are allocated to different categories of threat by IUCN, the World Conservation Union, in its Red List; but Iceland disputes the endangered rating for the fin.
"The total stock size of central and north Atlantic minke whales is close to 70,000 animals, of which around 43,600 are in Icelandic coastal waters," said the government's statement.
"The number of fin whales in the [area] is estimated at around 25,800 animals.
"The catches are clearly sustainable and therefore consistent with the principle of sustainable development."
Whales and fish
Rumours of a resumption have been circulating for some weeks, and a local company Hvalur hf has, according to newspapers, been outfitting a processing plant and staffing a whaling ship.
The resumption will be greeted with dismay by conservation groups, alarmed by the passing of the first pro-hunting resolution in 20 years at this year's International Whaling Commission (IWC) meeting.
"We are surprised and disappointed," said Arni Finnsson from the Iceland Nature Conservation Association (Inca).
"There is no market for this meat in Iceland, there is no possibility to export it to Japan; the government appears to have listened to fishermen who are blaming whales for eating all the fish.
THE LEGALITIES OF WHALING
Objection - A country formally objects to the IWC moratorium, declaring itself exempt
Scientific - A nation issues unilateral 'scientific permits'; any IWC member can do this
Aboriginal - IWC grants permits to indigenous groups for subsistence food
"This decision is giving the finger to the international community."
The Icelandic government had become frustrated with IWC negotiations on the Revised Management Scheme (RMS), a protocol designed to re-introduce commercial hunting under strict international catch limits, said Rune Frovik from the High North Alliance, a group representing whalers, sealers and fishermen in high latitude countries.
"When Iceland rejoined the IWC in 2002, they said they would not resume commercial whaling before 2006; they also said they would not resume as long as there was progress on the RMS.
"But at this year's IWC meeting, the process stopped - there was no progress."
Iceland gave up commercial hunts when the global moratorium was introduced in 1986, and stopped all whaling in 1989.
Having left the IWC in 1992, it rejoined in 2002 stating a "reservation" to the moratorium; and the circumstances surrounding its rejoining may leave its decision to resume commercial hunting open to legal challenge.
Countries stating a reservation at the moratorium's inception are allowed to hunt commercially, though Norway is the only one that does.
"Anti-whaling nations at the time Iceland rejoined said the rejoining was illegal because it hadn't taken the reservation when it left the IWC," said Sue Lieberman, director of the global species programme at WWF International.
"The view of anti-whaling countries will, I predict, not change - they believe that Iceland's reservation is not legal - so we, and I believe they, will argue that Iceland's commercial whaling is in contravention of the IWC."
Dutch whaling commissioner Guiseppe Raaphorst confirmed that view.
"We never recognised [Iceland's] reservation," he said. "You cannot step down from a convention and then rejoin it under a reservation - that is not possible under international law, and there will be a legal challenge."
Mr Raaphorst doubted that Iceland would be able to export the meat. "They would not be allowed to export meat because it is prevented under the Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species (Cites)," he said.
Cites regulations do not prevent Iceland from exporting whalemeat because it has a formal exemption under the treaty, but virtually every country is banned from importing it.
Iceland recently announced plans to export meat from its scientific whaling programme to the Faroe Islands, whose government maintains it is exempt from Cites regulations.
Icelandic and Norwegian whalers would like in the long run to export to Japan, the world's biggest market for whale meat.