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Last Updated: Wednesday, 25 April 2007, 08:57 GMT 09:57 UK
Icelandic whalers await quota decision
By James Shaw
BBC News

Whaling boats (Image: BBC)
Last year, Iceland allowed the nation's whalers to catch fin whales

The four ageing steamships lined up by the quay at Reykjavik harbour don't look like anything special.

But they are among the last survivors of an industry which was once worth huge amounts of money to nations like the US and Britain - and which brought some of the largest animals on the planet close to extinction.

Because these are whaling boats. They were built back in the 1940s to hunt, kill and recover the giant fin whales that patrol the waters of the North Atlantic.

For many years, while Iceland respected the ban on commercial whaling, they were tied up and idle.

But then last October, the Icelandic government, saying it was fed up with the endless discussions at the International Whaling Commission, decided to allow a limited amount of commercial whaling.

They issued a quota for nine fin whales - each about 20m (65ft) long and weighing about 40 tonnes.

Slipping away

While campaigning groups such as Greenpeace argued that the decision was grossly irresponsible and threatened an already endangered species, one of the boats at Reykjavik harbour slipped its moorings and headed out into the open ocean.

A harpoon (Image: BBC)
For years, harpoons on commercial whalers remained dormant

Over the course of the next few weeks, Hvalur 9, literally meaning "Whale 9", hunted and killed seven fin whales.

Now the meat from those animals sits in deep freezes. The owner of the Hvalur company, Kristjan Loftsson, says it needs to be tested for PCBs and other contaminants. Then it will be possible to sell it for export to Japan.

Mr Loftsson is not exactly an Icelandic Captain Ahab, the character created by novelist Herman Melville, who was obsessed with hunting the white whale Moby Dick.

But he does have a passionate conviction in his company's right to harvest the waters around Iceland and exploit their resources.

He points out that it was nations like Britain and the US that hunted some whale species close to extinction.

Iceland, on the other hand, has an exemplary record in protecting and sustaining the marine species on which its economy has relied for so long.

Changing times

But there are two problems for Mr Loftsson. Firstly, it is not yet clear that he will find a buyer for his whale meat.

An old whaling vessel (Image: BBC)
Whaling used to be a huge industry for nations such as the UK and US

The last time he tried to sell to the Japanese, he was prevented by Greenpeace protesters. And the domestic market took years to use the supplies in his freezers.

Secondly, the lives of Icelanders and the nation's economy are changing. Icelandic companies have big interests overseas.

They might be threatened by any boycott called in protest at renewed whaling. Tourism is also becoming much more important.

On the other side of Reykjavik harbour from the Hvalur boats, is a growing flotilla of whale-watching vessels.

There are stories of boat-loads of tourists coming across the carcasses of minke whales, discarded by whalers. Some visitors even accused their guides of being whale watchers by day and whale hunters at night.

There are still many Icelanders who believe the two industries can exist side-by-side.

But the Prime Minister Geir Haarde takes a pragmatic approach. In a recent interview, he said everything depended on whether buyers could be found for the fin whale meat currently in storage.

If that doesn't happen, there might be no justification for issuing new quotas. In which case, Iceland might retain a theoretical right to hunt fin whales, although ceasing to exercise it.

But Kristjan Loftsson and others who want to preserve Iceland's maritime traditions will not easily accept that his whaling boats should be consigned to a closed chapter of the nation's history.

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