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US Considers Sanctions Against Iceland Over Whaling

July 21, 2011

The Obama administration has threatened Iceland with possible trade and diplomatic sanctions under a U.S. law known as the Pelly Amendment, which allows the president to act against foreign nations who defy international animal conservation rules.

Under pressure by environmental groups, Commerce Secretary Gary Locke certified Iceland under the domestic law, which paves the way for retaliation against nations that break the International Whaling Commission’s moratorium.

The U.S. is particularly concerned about Iceland’s growing hunt for endangered fin whales, and its recent resumption of exports of whale meat to other pro-whaling nations.

Under the Pelly Amendment, the Obama administration now has 60 days to decide whether or not to move forward on the sanctions or other measures.

However, the threat of sanctions alone is sometimes enough to make the target countries alter their behavior.

“Iceland’s harvest of whales and export of fin whale meat threaten an endangered species and undermine worldwide efforts to protect whales,” Secretary Locke said in a statement.

“It’s critical that the government of Iceland take immediate action to comply with the moratorium,” said Locke, who also oversees the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

Locke also recommended that the U.S. reconsider cabinet-level visits to Iceland, and cooperation on Arctic initiatives.

The International Whaling Commission imposed a global moratorium on whaling in 1986 over concern about the declining stock of the marine mammals. 

Norway and Iceland are now the only nations that openly flout the moratorium.  Japan hunts more than 1,000 whales annually, but considers itself within the rules of the International Whaling Commission under a clause that allows the practice for scientific research.  Japan has also aggressively fought to end the moratorium, saying that whaling is within its cultural rights.

The United States has previously invoked the Pelly Amendment against Norway and Japan, but did not follow through on sanctions.

Iceland, which resumed commercial whaling in 2006, is viewed as less entrenched in its whale-hunting position than Japan and Norway. The nation, which has a population of roughly 320,000 people, killed between 60 and 80 minke whales and about 150 fin whales last year ““ three times what the IWC considers sustainable for the species’ survival.

Locke’s certification comes less than a week after the annual meeting of the International Whaling Commission, which became stalled in discord between pro-whaling nations such as Iceland and Japan and opponents.  

Environmentalists argue that the whale populations are at risk, and also point to the mammals’ high intelligence, calling their slaughter unnecessarily cruel.  These groups have strongly urged the Obama administration to proceed with sanctions against Iceland unless it ends its whaling practices.

“We are excited that the US has taken this first really important step in ending Iceland’s commercial whaling for fin whales and minke whales,” Karen Vale of the World Society for the Protection of Animals told the AFP news agency.

“However, it is just a first step, so we are hopeful that the White House will decide to put forth the sanctions,” she added.

The Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society said that more than a quarter million people had sent personal appeals to the Obama administration urging action on Iceland, something “that has clearly influenced the U.S. government’s thinking.”

Previous administrations have used the Pelly Amendment to warn other nations about their whaling practices. Norway was cited in 1986, 1990 and 1993 for hunting minke whales, and was again certified in 1992 for killing whales for research.  However the U.S. did not follow through with trade or diplomatic sanctions.

One of the rare times that the U.S. has followed through with imposing sanctions over animal issues occurred in 1994, when it banned wildlife imports from Taiwan over concern about the trade in tiger and rhinoceros products.

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