Icelandic whaling: Conservationists split over efficacy of Obama’s sanctions, E.U. protest

Should the U.S. enforce targeted economic sanctions or hope shame will save the endangered fin whales?

CLICK IMAGE for slideshow: Workers cut up a finback whale at the seaside resort of Hvalfjordur in Iceland, July 12, 2013. (Bruno Compagnon/SAGAPHOTO.COM/Alamy)
CLICK IMAGE for slideshow: Workers cut up a finback whale at the seaside resort of Hvalfjordur in Iceland, July 12, 2013. (Bruno Compagnon/SAGAPHOTO.COM/Alamy)

Iceland’s whaling industry continues to kill endangered fin whales in violation of international law a year after U.S. President Barack Obama issued diplomatic sanctions to stop the practice.

Marine life conservationists celebrated the administration’s measures at the time, but there’s disagreement over how successful they have been.

Some criticize the diplomatic sanctions as not having “enough teeth” to effect change — as indicated by the 137 fin whales slaughtered last summer — and are pushing for targeted economic sanctions.

Others praise what they consider sensitive and nuanced sanctions that refuse to play into the hand of commercial whaling apologists, who are eager to marry their industry to a nationalistic impulse and Viking sensibility.

“The average Icelander is not benefiting from fin whaling. The profits are going to a small group of people,” Kate O’Connell, marine wildlife consultant for the Animal Welfare Institute, said in an interview with Yahoo News.

The problem

The Nordic island’s whalers — and government enablers — have circumvented or outright ignored cries from the international community to stop killing and trading fin whales, whose population was decimated throughout the 20th century by large-scale commercial whaling.

A recent study, “Emptying the Oceans,” shows that about 2.9 million whales were killed for commercial purposes last century, and fin whales — known as greyhounds of the sea — were the most hunted species worldwide: 874,068 were killed.

“For centuries, whales have been a thing of inspiration, beauty, mythology and lore. We connect with whales because, for all their size, whales are like us,” Taryn Heimer, senior policy analyst at the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), told Yahoo News.

“Whales have similar brain structures and are intelligent; they communicate, teach, learn and cooperate; and they are self-aware, compassionate, and they grieve. For all these reasons, we identify with whales on a visceral level. And that’s why the killing of them for a buck is so abhorrent.”

Kristján Loftsson, owner of the Hvalur whaling company,speaks with a worker during the cutting up of a finback whale at the seaside resort of Hvalfjordur in Iceland,July 12, 2013. (Bruno Compagnon/SAGAPHOTO.COM/Alamy)
Kristján Loftsson, owner of the Hvalur whaling company,speaks with a worker during the cutting up of a finback whale at the seaside resort of Hvalfjordur in Iceland,July 12, 2013. (Bruno Compagnon/SAGAPHOTO.COM/Alamy)

Defying a global moratorium

In 1986, the International Whaling Commission (IWC) banned commercial whaling and most whaling nations destroyed or repurposed their related vessels, but Japan and Norway persisted.

The Icelandic Hvalur whaling company picked up the practice again in 2006 and is the sole company that targets the endangered fin whale, the second largest species in the world (reaching 75 to 85 feet in length).

Kristján Loftsson, CEO and chair of Hvalur, led his company to kill more than 1,000 whales — including 551 fin whales — to exploit a limited demand for meat and blubber in Japan.

“Fin whaling is conducted by one lone mad fisheries magnate,” Patrick Ramage, the whales program director at the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW), said to Yahoo News. “He’s the lone driver in that outmoded and objectionable practice.”

Loftsson is also a phenomenally successful businessman: He is chairman of the board for Iceland’s top seafood company, HB Grandi, and well-connected with the current conservative coalition government.

His ancestors got wealthy in the fisheries business, and he allocates a portion of his fortune to reviving the whaling and whale trade industry in the 21st century — to the tremendous frustration of the international community.

In December 2013, the Icelandic government approved the killing of up to 770 fin whales over five years — 154 per year. Their quotas are self-allocated and not approved by the IWC.

“We would argue that the United States has to use every tool available to it to make clear to Iceland that its renegade whaling is unacceptable,” O’Connell said.

Obama’s diplomatic sanctions

Last year, on April 1, U.S. President Barack Obama announced a slew of measures against Iceland for undermining the IWC by whaling commercially and the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) by trading whale products — invoking the Pelly Amendment (the Fisherman’s Protective Act of 1967).

Obama directed (1) relevant agencies to raise concerns about the practice where appropriate; (2) delegates to voice American objections when meeting with their Icelandic counterparts; (3) the Department of State to encourage Iceland to expand nonlethal uses of whales (such as whale watching), reconsider bilateral cooperation projects with the country and inform Iceland’s government that the U.S. will continue to monitor the activities of whaling companies; (4) senior administration officials to evaluate the appropriateness of visits to Iceland in light of the fin whale hunts; and (5) relevant departments to examine further options.

Secretary of State John Kerry during the State Department's 'Our Ocean' conference at the State Department in Washington, Tuesday, June 17, 2014. (AP Photo/Cliff Owen)
Secretary of State John Kerry during the State Department's 'Our Ocean' conference at the State Department in Washington, Tuesday, June 17, 2014. (AP Photo/Cliff Owen)

In a memorandum to the president dated January 23, 2015, Secretary of State John Kerry, Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell and Secretary of Commerce Penny Pritzker reported on how U.S. officials carried through on these directives.

In one example, from June 2014, Kerry hosted the “Our Ocean” conference with more than 400 policymakers, ocean scientists and environmentalists from nearly 90 nations to discuss the challenges facing the ocean today. The State Department did not invite Icelandic officials to participate.

“This is a big black eye on Iceland, and it’s just one man driving the fin whaling industry in an otherwise environmentally friendly nation,” Heimer said.

Efficacy of U.S. directives

As previously noted, conservationists fighting the whaling industry are divided over how effective the U.S. measures have been.

The IFAW says the Obama administration’s directives are making a real difference by putting political pressure on Iceland without being so harsh that Loftsson could exploit them to scapegoat the U.S. for any economic woes or drum up patriotic support for his business.

“He would love to characterize this issue as Vikings vs. the world. And that’s not what it is,” Ramage said. Antiwhaling campaigners in Iceland “were relieved to see they weren’t so severe that they could play it out as a nationalist issue.”

After all, he says, Icelanders — like Americans or any other nationality — do not appreciate being told what to do by foreign governments; ultimate change will not come from Washington or the floor of the IWC.

“It is going to be made in Reykjavík, Tokyo and Oslo by leaders in those countries for reasons that make sense to them,” he said.

Leigh Henry, senior policy adviser for species conservation at the World Wildlife Fund, says the sanctions have reverberated throughout Icelandic media and political circles.

“I know that had an impact in Iceland and raised concern and alarm bells in the higher levels of government. There are discussions in parliament about how it is affecting Iceland on the national scale,” she told Yahoo News.

These hard conversations have not resulted in a decrease of Iceland’s take of fin whales, however. So, Henry says, it might be time for the U.S. to reconsider its foreign policy on this issue.

“They are undermining critical environmental laws,” she said. “It’s hard to sit in these IWC meetings year after year and see Iceland’s complete, flagrant disregard.”

Proposed economic sanctions

Whales Need Us, a coalition of 26 NGOs, is lobbying for the Obama administration to implement targeted economic sanctions against Icelandic businesses with ties to commercial whaling.

“Sanctions should be back on the table, and not just diplomatic ones, because it’s clear that those have not been sufficient,” O’Connell said.

Greenpeace activists protest against the transport of fin whale meat transiting through the port of Hamburg, Germany, July 5, 2013. The 336 meter long cargo ship freighter Cosco Pride (Seaspan Corp.) is carrying the whale meat from Iceland to Japan. The banners read (in German) Stoppt den Handel mit Walfleisch! (Stop the whale meat trade) and Stop whaling. (Joerg Modrow/Greenpeace)
Greenpeace activists protest against the transport of fin whale meat transiting through the port of Hamburg, Germany, July 5, 2013. The 336 meter long cargo ship freighter Cosco Pride (Seaspan Corp.) is carrying the whale meat from Iceland to Japan. The banners read (in German) Stoppt den Handel mit Walfleisch! (Stop the whale meat trade) and Stop whaling. (Joerg Modrow/Greenpeace)

Phil Kline, senior oceans campaigner at Greenpeace U.S.A., emphasizes that no one is calling for a boycott of Icelandic goods, which would hurt the country’s many innocent citizens not connected to the industry.

“We have been asking for the U.S. government to stop the import of products — mostly fish — from companies that have a direct link and association with their whaling operations,” Kline told Yahoo News.

Meanwhile, the Don’t Buy From Icelandic Whalers initiative is imploring people and companies to avoid purchasing food from such companies.

The group prominently displayed a billboard with their message near the Boston Convention and Exposition Center, where the Seafood Expo North America (SENA) was held for several days in mid-March.

Trader Joe’s has affirmed its opposition to commercial whaling, and High Liner Foods confirmed that it will not enter into any future contracts with HB Grandi.

European Union-led démarche

An international coalition formally protested Iceland’s killing and trading of whales on September 15, 2014. It included the European Union and its 28 member states, as well as the United States, Australia, Brazil, Israel, New Zealand, Mexico and Monaco.

“The authorizations have been put in place without presentation to the International Whaling Commission (IWC) and without regard for the long-term interests of cetacean conservation,” the statement reads in part.

The European Union strongly opposed the nation’s international trade of whale products and its significant increase in fin whale “harvests”: 125 in 2009, 148 in 2010, 134 in 2013, and 137 in 2014, with a hiatus in 2011 and 2012 (because of the tsunami in Japan).

“The current five-year quota of 770 fin whales is considered unsustainable under IWC stock assessment methods,” the union said.

The IWC, which comprises more than 70 countries, has not released a formal statement supporting or denouncing Iceland’s return to commercial whaling.

A piece of sliced raw whale meat is pictured in a restaurant in Japan's oldest whaling village of Taiji, southwest of Tokyo June 2, 2008. (Issei Kato/REUTER)
A piece of sliced raw whale meat is pictured in a restaurant in Japan's oldest whaling village of Taiji, southwest of Tokyo June 2, 2008. (Issei Kato/REUTER)

Drumming up demand

Fin whale meat has never been a staple of the Icelandic diet.

The Capacent Gallup conducted a poll on behalf of the IFAW that found only 3 percent of the nation’s citizens eat it regularly. And 75 percent have never purchased whale meat in their lives.

In 2013, ecotourism, including whale watching, eclipsed the fisheries as Iceland’s main economic driver, Ramage noted.

“What you’re seeing play out is one man’s refusal to reconcile himself to the emerging global reality,” he said. “All the great whaling nations of the 20th century are migrating away from the killing of whales for commercial purposes and toward a different economic relationship with whale species.”

A joint investigation by the Animal Welfare Institute, the Environmental Investigation Agency and the Whale and Dolphin Conservation shows that Hvalur has exported more than 5,000 tons of fin whale products to Japan, including 2014’s record-setting shipment of 2,071 tons.

But the market in Japan, where fin whale meat has traditionally been eaten as a delicacy, has been declining over time. In 2013, some of the Icelandic whale meat was even turned into dog food — just to get rid of it.

There is also significant concern about the chemicals in fin whale meat. One shipment languished in Japanese customs for six months, and portions of it were shipped back to Iceland because of contamination.

“It’s a naturally dying industry, which compounds the frustration that they are slaughtering these majestic animals,” Heimer said.

Fin Whale (Balaenoptera physalus) resident adult at winter feeding grounds, Sea of Cortez, Baja California, Mexico, July 26, 2005. (Tui De Roy/Minden Pictures/Corbis)
Fin Whale (Balaenoptera physalus) resident adult at winter feeding grounds, Sea of Cortez, Baja California, Mexico, July 26, 2005. (Tui De Roy/Minden Pictures/Corbis)

Conservation status

Iceland’s Ministry of Fisheries and Agriculture claims it “fully appreciates the need for careful conservation of marine resources” but says there is an abundance of both fin whales and minke whales, which are also hunted.

However, the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, widely considered the most comprehensive index on the subject, changed the fin whale’s classification from vulnerable to endangered in 1996.

Thanks to its colossal size, the fin whale had been mostly impervious to attacks from humans until the dawn of modern whaling in the late 19th century.

The IUCN says the cause for their endangered status is clear and could be reversed by the cessation of commercial whaling.