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ICELAND: US Moves Diplomatically Against Whaling

Lowana Veal

REYKJAVIK, Oct 6 2011 (IPS) - U.S. President Barack Obama has decided to impose diplomatic rather than trade sanctions on Iceland because of the country’s whale-hunting activities.

He has implemented an instrument known as the Pelly Amendment, also known as Section 8 of the Fisherman’s Protective Act. This is a law from 1978 that allows the U.S. President to ban the import of products from countries that allow fishing operations or trade that diminish the effectiveness of an international fishery conservation programme for endangered or threatened species.

This was the upshot of a process initiated in December 2010, when 19 American NGOs filed a “Pelly petition” pursuant to the Pelly Amendment to call on the Secretaries of Commerce and Interior to certify that Iceland is undermining international conservation agreements. They called for the imposition of trade sanctions against fisheries-related businesses linked to the Iceland company which is responsible for killing fin whales.

Then U.S. secretary of commerce Gary Locke acted on this and certified in July that Iceland be subject to the Pelly Amendment because, as Obama put it in his letter to the Icelandic authorities, “Nationals of Iceland are conducting whaling activities that diminish the effectiveness of the International Whaling Commission (IWC) conservation programme.”

However, Locke recommended at the time that diplomatic sanctions rather than trade sanctions be implemented.

This means that American diplomats are supposed to voice their concerns about the continuation of commercial whaling by Iceland when on official visits; seek ways to stop whaling by Icelandic companies; and consider whether it is appropriate to continue cooperation in Arctic cooperation projects.

Obama’s letter also states: “Iceland’s increased commercial whaling and recent trade in whale products diminish the effectiveness of the IWC’s conservation programme because: (1) Iceland’s commercial harvest of whales undermines the moratorium on commercial whaling put in place by the IWC to protect plummeting whale stocks; (2) the fin whale harvest greatly exceeds catch levels that the IWC’s scientific body advised would be sustainable if the moratorium were removed; and (3) Iceland’s harvests are not likely to be brought under IWC management and control at sustainable levels through multilateral efforts at the IWC.”

Obama had 60 days to respond to Locke’s decision. In the intervening time, an Icelandic delegation visited Washington and met with the U.S. State Department and two Alaskan Senators to discuss the situation.

They emphasised that Iceland only conducts whaling from two abundant and healthy stocks in the North Atlantic, minke whales and fin whales, and that the whaling activities are fully sustainable and based on best scientific information.

But it appears that these talks came to no avail.

In response to Obama’s letter, the Icelandic Minister of Fisheries and Agriculture, Jon Bjarnason, expressed surprise and disappointment. “The U.S. authorities are not consistent when they criticise Iceland for its fin whale hunting on the one hand and ask for the support of Iceland and other member States of the International Whaling Commission for their bowhead quota off Alaska on the other hand. Scientific information clearly shows that the Icelandic fin whale hunting is no less sustainable than the U.S. bowhead whaling,” he said.

The five-year U.S. bowhead quota is subject to approval by a 75 percent majority of member countries of the IWC at its Annual Meeting in Panama in 2012.

Bjarnason’s ministry defended the Icelandic position by saying: “There is no legal or scientific justification for actions to be taken by the U.S. due to Icelandic whaling activities.” Furthermore, “Iceland’s whaling activities are fully lawful and its international trade in whale products is in accordance with its international obligations.”

While the ministry of fisheries was boldly trying to defend their position, other ministers had a slightly different view.

Minister for the Environment Svandis Svavarsdottir doubts if whaling in the present context can ever be called sustainable, both from the standpoint of the environment and judged by economic factors. “Foreign markets for whale meat are few and miniscule, making the potential income of whaling negligible in a larger economic context,” she says.

Minister for foreign affairs, Ossur Skarphedinsson makes a clear distinction between the minke and the fin whale catch. “Our policy is clear. We shall utilise our resources in a sustainable way. The fin whale stock in the northern seas is without doubt not endangered, and when the Americans state the contrary they unfortunately reflect a rather infantile command of the scientific facts,” he told IPS.

Skarphedinsson continued: “However, in the strict sense of the definition of sustainability it can be questioned if fin whales are utilised in a sustainable way if there doesn’t exist a market for the product, as stated by some respectable opponents of whaling. This has been recently discussed twice in the government and I have been asked in my dual capacity as minister of foreign affairs and foreign trade to produce a report, among other things on the market aspect, in cooperation with the minister of agriculture.

“We shall take it from there, although I add, that the recent action of the American government against Iceland is not helpful to speed that up. Indeed their arguments against Iceland are devoid of any scientific data, reflecting a rather questionable motive as well as methodology.”

“As far as the minke whale catch is concerned, it is scientifically impossible to argue that these are unsustainable, and only the American administration steps as low as to question our data on the minke catch without wanting to inspect the data. It is difficult to come to an accommodation with people that play by such twisted rules,” he added.

Although no fin whales have been caught this year because of declining demand for whale meat in Japan, some fin whale meat has been exported there. The American groups have also complained about that.

“Our source found that 572 tons of fin meat (and blubber) were imported in 2010 and 410 tons of meat have been imported this year,” says Nanami Kurasawa from the Japanese marine conservation organisation IKAN, adding: “Around 335 tons of meat is still in the bonded warehouse.”

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