Page last updated at 21:45 GMT, Tuesday, 27 January 2009

Iceland sets major whaling quota

By Richard Black
Environment correspondent, BBC News website

Fin whale
The new fin whale quotas are a huge increase from previous years

Iceland's fisheries ministry has issued whaling quotas substantially enlarged from those in previous years, as the government prepares to leave office.

The quotas would allow catching of 100 minke whales and 150 fin whales annually for the next five years.

The incoming interim administration is likely to be led by parties opposed to whaling, and may cancel the move.

The move comes just after details emerged of an eventual possible deal between pro- and anti-whaling nations.

Environmental groups swiftly condemned the announcement by fisheries minister Einar Gudfinnsson.

Ingibjorg Solrun Gisladottir
Probable interim leader Ingibjorg Gisladottir is against the hunt

"This is basically an act of sabotage, an act of bitterness, against the incoming government," said Arni Finnsson from the Iceland Nature Conservation Association (INCA).

Mr Finnsson said he would urge the incoming administration, likely to be led by the avowedly anti-whaling Social Democrats and Greens, to overturn it.

Green MP Kolbrun Halldorsdottir, tipped as a possible environment minister in the new regime, indicated she would favour this, though cautioning that the new government will have a lot of other issues to deal with.

"In my opinion, it's extremely foolish of the minister, and I can promise you that if my party can form this interim government then we will at least discuss it and find out what we can do about it," she told BBC News.

Last year, ex-foreign minister Ingibjorg Solrun Gisladottir, who is likely to lead the interim government, said that whaling risked damaging Iceland's long-term interests.

Big fins

The fin whale quota particularly angers conservationists. Internationally it is listed as an endangered species, and the quota of 150 is a major escalation on the total of seven that have been caught over the last three seasons.

Whale restaurant

The outgoing Icelandic government had previously said it would issue quotas only where there was a market - but fin meat is not eaten in Iceland.

Last year the single company hunting fin whales, Hvalur hf, exported a consignment of meat to Japan. After delays in customs, it entered the country and has reportedly been sold.

Hvalur CEO Kristjan Loftsson indicated that the export had persuaded the government that there was a market.

"They were just listening to me on this one," he said.

"We exported whalemeat to Japan, and it's gone through customs and there is no hindrance there."

Mr Loftsson said he planned major exports from this year's hunt, assuming the quota was not revoked.

The minke quota is more than doubled to 100, the size that companies have lobbied for in recent years. Minke meat is sold and eaten in Iceland.

Minke and fin catches would stay within limits set by Icelandic scientists, a measure designed to ensure the hunts are sustainable.

European rules

Some observers believe that Hvalur hf and the outgoing government are using whaling as a way to lobby against Iceland joining the EU.

EU membership is widely seen as the most feasible way for the country to weather its financial crisis.

Fishing magnates, including Mr Loftsson, fear the EU's Common Fisheries Policy would be introduced, to the detriment of both fish stocks and fishermen.

"We don't see any point to have that to manage our fisheries - we can do it here better ourselves," he said.

He also said that an annual catch of 150 fin whales could generate seasonal employment for up to 200 people.

Reykjavik has been hit by protests against the financial crisis

The EU would be likely to demand an end to whaling as a condition of membership.

But Mr Finnsson of the Iceland Nature Conservation Association said it was not in Iceland's interests to provoke the EU.

"Even if we don't join this year, it's obvious that we need close relations and we can't step on one another's toes," he said.

Iceland's is the smallest annual catch of the three countries with whaling programmes that are not intended to satisfy the subsistence needs of aboriginal peoples - the other two being Norway and Japan.

At the weekend, delegates from six countries met in Hawaii to discuss a possible "compromise package" between Japan, the most politically assertive of the three, and the anti-whaling lobby.

The wording of draft proposals, seen by BBC News, has angered conservation groups which see it as giving too much ground to Japan.

Trade was not covered in the proposals.

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