Page last updated at 16:42 GMT, Friday, 5 December 2008

Japan sells Icelandic whale meat

By Richard Black
Environment correspondent, BBC news website

Whalemeat on market stall. Image: BBC
Fin whale has been a sought after species in Japan

Whale meat imported from Iceland and Norway has gone on sale in Japan, according to the Icelandic firm which caught and exported most of the meat.

Hvalur hf told BBC News that after completing food safety checks, the meat was now being distributed.

The consignment is Iceland's first whale export to Japan in 20 years.

The trade is legal because all three countries have registered exemptions to rules banning international trade in whale products.

There were unconfirmed reports last weekend that the meat was on sale, but this is the first official notification.

Some environmental groups fear that Iceland and Norway want to step up whale meat exports to Japan, which is seen as having the biggest potential market.

The present consignment consists of 65 tonnes of fin whale meat caught by Hvalur hf, and five tonnes of minke whale meat exported by the Norwegian company Myklebust Trading.

I don't believe there will ever be a market in Japan for Icelandic meat that can be profitable
Arni Finnsson, Iceland Nature Conservation Association

It arrived in Tokyo in June, received an import permit last month, and has now been given a clean bill of health.

"The meat has now cleared customs in Japan after undergoing very rigorous testing to ensure that it meets every aspect of Japan's food safety regulations," said Hvalur's CEO Kristjan Loftsson.

"We were always confident that this would be the case. It was only a question of time, as Japan is legally obliged to handle whale meat imports in the same way as any other seafood."

Profit warning

Mr Loftsson, whose company is the only one in Iceland equipped to hunt fin whales - the second biggest species - told BBC News that this export was designed to re-introduce fin meat to Japanese palates.

It is considered one of the tastiest varieties, but has largely been absent from the market in recent years, as Japan's own hunts excluded the species until the 2005/6 Antarctic season.

Mr Loftsson said that if the market permitted, he could eventually hunt as many fin whales as Icelandic scientists recommended - provided the government granted a quota, which is likely if there is a proven market.

Under the global moratorium on commercial whaling, hunting is conducted in three ways:
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

Although the fin is internationally classified as an endangered species, estimates of the north Atlantic stock run to about 30,000, and Icelandic scientists recently suggested that an annual catch of 200 would not damage the local stock.

But Arni Finnsson of the Iceland Nature Conservation Association (INCA) believes the market may not be as welcoming as the exporters hope.

"I don't believe there will ever be a market in Japan for Icelandic meat that can be profitable," he said.

"If they allow it from Iceland, they have to allow it from Norway, and then you could have thousands of minke whales flooding the market - it's impossible."

He believes the export is a political move designed to show the coalition government - which is divided on the issue - that whaling can be a profitable venture, generating jobs at a time when the country is in dire economic straits.

He also believes Hvalur has an interest in scuppering the "peace progress" within the International Whaling Commission which is exploring whether pro- and anti-whaling countries can find a compromise between their very different positions.

The next meeting in the process takes place next week in Cambridge.

The whale meat trade is banned under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), but Iceland, Japan and Norway have all registered reservations, as the treaty permits, exempting themselves from the ban.

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