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Banned trade in whale meat is picking up

Published on June 22, 2009

Oslo — Despite being officially illegal, the international trade in whale meat between hunting nations is quietly picking up again, say environmental campaigners.

The issue has become one of the flashpoints between pro- and anti-whaling campaigners in the run-up to the five-day annual meeting of the International Whaling Commission, which opens Monday.

Delegates at the conference, which this year will be in the Portuguese island of Madeira, will also debate the issue.

Japan, Norway, Iceland — the main whaling nations — all want to lift the ban on the trade, which is outlawed under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES).

Despite the 1986 international moratorium on whale-hunting, Norway and Iceland have resumed whaling, having reserved their position on the moratorium. Japan uses an opt-out that allows whaling for scientific purposes.

After a gap of two decades, Japan started importing whale meat in 2008: a few dozen tonnes of Iceland whalemeat and less than 10 tonnes from Norway.

This year, the Nordic nations want to increase that amount. One Norwegian firm, Lofothval, has obtained export licences for 47 tonnes of whale meat.

Iceland plans on exporting half its quota of 100 small Minke whales and 150 Fin whales.

For Truls Gulowsen, head of environmental campaigners Greenpeace in Norway, it is a sign of their desperation.

"That shows the despair of the whaling industry, that can’t sell its products in Norway and so is trying to get rid of them abroad at any price," he said.

"But the Japanese eat less and less whale meat and their warehouses are already full of products that the local hunters can’t get rid of."

Industry professionals reject that argument. For them, the Japanese market is a promising new market offering higher prices — even if they will not discuss the precise figures.

"Japan, that’s more than 120 million inhabitants," said Rune Froevik of Lofothval.

"Certainly, some of them still have to get their palates accustomed to a product that they haven’t all tasted, but they are receptive because a large part of their diet already comes from the sea.

And the Japanese consume the fat of the whale, which in Norway is considered a waste product.

"Each catch becomes more profitable because a small Minke whale contains 1.5 tonnes of meat and 500 kilos of blubber," said Froevik.

As well as their reservations over the 1986 whaling moratorium, Japan, Iceland and Norway have also questioned the need to put whales on the CITES list of endangered species.

That position leaves them free to trade among themselves in the meat.

"We have certainly tried to get the whale off this list but we have come up against political obstruction," said Oeystein Stoerkersen, who heads up Norway’s Directorate for Nature Management.

"The experts, including those abroad, agree that the species we are hunting are not under threat, but certain decision-makers in the United States, Britain and in Germany or France are trying to scrounge votes by pandering to ill-informed public opinion," he said.

According to the International Whaling Commission’s scientific committee, the North Atlantic has 30,000 Fin whales and 174,000 Minke whales.

For Norway that is enough to allow the harpooning of about 1,000 whales a year.