June 20, 2009

Iceland’s First Whale Catch Comes Amid Worries Of EU Membership

Whale hunters in Iceland have brought in their first big catches of the season -- two 35-ton, 65-ft.-long fin whales, the AFP news agency said on Friday.

The Hvalur 9 arrived early Friday morning at the port of Akranes, 12 miles north of Reykjavik, with the whales in tow.

The large mammals were quickly carved up to separate the meat from the blubber, with an inspector tasting a piece of the meat to check its quality.

But the environmental group Greenpeace criticized the catch, saying Iceland would pay a high price for continuing the contentious practice.

"What little profit (the whaler) may take from this fin whale hunt will come at a great cost to Iceland - economically and politically," Greenpeace International's whale campaign coordinator Sara Holden told the AFP.

Iceland's whaling season began May 26 amid staunch opposition from environmental groups who were furious over Iceland's increasing of its quota this year to 100 minke whales and 150 fin whales.  Last year's quota was just 40 minke whales and nine fin whales.

Many whale species are now endangered, despite hunting of the whales being officially banned with a moratorium in 1986 by the International Whaling Commission.

Norway withdrew from the moratorium in 1993, followed by Iceland in 2006, amid fierce international protests from Britain, France, Germany and the United States. The two nations are now the only countries in the world that authorize commercial whaling.

Japan officially permits whaling by using a loophole that allows "lethal research" on the marine mammals, with the meat frequently ending up at restaurants and supermarkets.

Should Iceland succeed in its bid to join the European Union, it would likely mean an end to its whale hunting tradition, said Kristjan Loftsson, the chief executive of Hvalur, a leading Icelandic whaling firm.

Loftsson, 66, told the AFP news agency that he worries Brussels would crack down on Iceland's whaling amid broad opposition by European nations.

"I would not be surprised if whale hunting has to be stopped," Loftsson told AFP.

Loftsson said Iceland should not join the EU, not because of whale hunters but in the interest of the nation's entire fishing industry.

In the recent elections, Iceland's Prime Minister Johanna Sigurdardottir made campaign pledges to allow Icelandic voters have the final say on whether or not the nation joins the EU.

Loftsson questioned how many would truly support EU membership.

"I am very skeptical that Iceland will join the European Union in the near future," he said.

"I think the Icelandic people are sufficiently well-informed to say 'No' to Europe," said Loftsson, who began hunting at the age of 13.

He says that whaling "like any other industry creates jobs, income and foreign currency" and is a critical part of Iceland's economy.

He also disputes claims by environmentalists who say whales are an endangered species and must be protected.

"This is just a natural resource that people want to use. It's estimated there are some 20,000 fin whales around Iceland. With that in mind, 150 (hunted this year) is unlikely to make a big difference," he said.

He also disagreed with Greenpeace's claim that the popularity of whale meat is on the decline.

"Each whale's value depends on its size and age. I don't know anyone in business and aims to lose money," he said.

Hvalur employs about 150 people, 30 of which are deployed on the company's two fishing vessels.  The company got its start in 1948, and is currently the only firm allowed to hunt fin whales around the Icelandic coast.

Iceland's higher hunting quota may contribute to the often-heated debate at the annual International Whaling Commission meeting, which begins Monday in Portugal's Madeira Island. 

Pro-hunting nations have long fought for an end to the 23-year-old whaling moratorium.


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