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Icelandic whaler may have won the battle – but he will surely lose the war

As the Winter Bay pulled into port at Osaka, Japan, earlier today,  laden with over 1,800 tonnes of Icelandic fin whale meat meat, I, for one, am flabbergasted: not only that this nefarious trade continues, but also that this particular shipment has been successful.  Most people are, rightly, outraged that whilst trade in whale products is banned in the vast majority of countries, a very few (including Iceland and Japan) defiantly exploit a loophole which allows them to legally trade with each other. This loophole of course, needs to be closed (and you can be sure that we are doing all that we can to address this anomaly).

Earlier this summer, over a million people signed an Avaaz petition calling upon St Kitts and Nevis (the small island state which provided a ‘flag of convenience’ to the Winter Bay) to de-flag the vessel and to stop supporting Japan on whaling issues.

Risks of travelling via Arctic waters

Last month, we expressed strong concerns  that this shipment was allowed to make the journey “over the top” via the Northeast Passage, not just because of the nature of her cargo, but also because, as a single-hulled ship rated only Ice Class 1, the Winter Bay has only basic ice strengthening and was reported to have suffered mechanical problems before she left Iceland in June. (The vessel is due to be inspected next month, so it will be interesting to see how she is rated then, in terms of seaworthiness.)

In addition to the obvious risks posed to her crew as they travelled this remote route, we’ve also been concerned that the Winter Bay – along with other vessels using this passage – could pose a risk to the fragile Arctic ecosystem. Russia is responsible for issuing permits  to vessels seeking to use the Northeast Passage, a route navigable for only a few months each year.  Last month, we commented that “Transporting meat from endangered fin whales on a single-hulled ship through the Northeast Passage shipping route is like playing with explosives. There is a real risk of disaster resulting in a disabled ship and the possible fouling of Arctic waters with fuel and other contaminants where containment of a spill would be difficult, causing adverse impacts to Arctic species and their habitat.”

Whilst fin whaler, Kristjan Loftsson, who chartered the Winter Bay, will doubtless be rubbing his hands in glee at getting his consignment to journey’s end, it is important to remember that he was exploiting pretty much the only route to Japan left open to him, after campaigns by WDC and other NGOs made him persona non grata on his traditional route via European ports and also when he shipped his meat instead via other circuitous routes across Canada and around the coast of Africa.

Blatant cronyism?

Ironically, whilst Iceland and Russia are currently at loggerheads (Russia slapped an import ban on Icelandic seafood in retaliation for Iceland’s support for EU sanctions against Russia over the Ukraine), Mr Loftsson himself appears to be a good friend of Russia’s and – surely no coincidence – happened to entertain Vladimir Titov, Russia’s Assistant Foreign Minister; Anton Vasiliev, the Russian Ambassador to Iceland and other dignatories on a sea fishing trip in mid-July.  

What will happen to this consignment?

It is difficult to say what use the Japanese will make of this latest hefty consignment, which almost certainly consists of most of last year’s fin whale catch (totalling 137 whales).  As the grim tally of fin whales killed this season in Iceland has already passed the 100 whale mark, it is clear that at least part of Mr Loftsson’s intention was to make room in his freezer for this year’s catch.  

Fin whale products from previous consignments languished for years in Japanese frozen stockpiles and some have even ended up as dog treats.  Who knows where meat from this shipment will turn up?  Just over a week ago, 233 cans of fin whale curry (manufactured in Japan from imported Icelandic fin whale meat) were seized by the authorities after they were discovered on the shelves of the 759 store in Tuen Nun, Hong Kong. As well as violating CITES regulations relating to trade in endangered species, the sale of whale meat and products is banned under Hong Kong’s own laws where it carries a maximum penalty of HK$5 million and a two year prison sentence. Hong Kong’s Centre for Food Safety is also looking into allegations that the meat may be contaminated, since in 2013, fin whale meat shipped to Japan tested high for two pesticides: aldrin and dieldrin.

At a time when questions are being asked increasingly loudly about the future of whaling, both within and outside Iceland, it is clear that this brutal and unnecessary industry has truly had its day. My hope is that this consignment of dead fin whales, travelling via the back door to Japan, will be the last.

Support our campaign to see Iceland respected as a Whale Nation, not a whaling nation.

About Vanessa Williams-Grey

Policy manager - Stop Whaling and Responsible Whale Watching