Iceland May Resume the Slaughter of Endangered Fin Whales

Posted May 4, 2012 by Candace Calloway Whiting
Gentle, and increasingly friendly to whale watchers, fin whales enjoy worldwide protection as their population struggles to recover from whaling. However, Iceland defies world agreements and hunts these whales, often selling the meat illegally to Japan.
Fin Whale
Fin Whale
Lori Mazzuca, AFSC/Kodiak
According to the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA), Iceland may be poised to resume the slaughter of an endangered whale species, the large and athletic fin whale (Balaenoptera physalus). In brutal defiance of international agreements Iceland annually hunts the whales, and may again illegally sell a good portion of the the meat to Japan.
Clare Perry, EIA senior campaigner, said: “Iceland has exported almost 2,000 tonnes of whale meat to Japan in recent years. The Icelandic whaling company Hvalur is deliberately growing an export market for an endangered species which is protected by two international agreements to which Iceland is signatory. We are calling on the EU and US to take urgent steps to end this rogue whaling.”
Last year the fin whales enjoyed a reprieve in Iceland due to Japan's difficulties following that country's devastating earthquake and tsunami, and it was hoped that the Pelly certification issued by the United States would discourage Iceland from resuming whaling going into the future. The Pelly Amendment allows the U.S. president to sanction countries that don't comply with environmental regulations, in this case CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species) and the IWC (International Whaling Commission).
“President Obama has already laid the foundation for a strong US response to this news with the Pelly certification in September 2011,” stated D.J. Schubert of AWI. “Any suggestion of a resumption of fin whaling should trigger an immediate response by US authorities to warn Iceland of the implications, domestically and internationally, of killing fin whales.”
Historically Iceland did little in the way of whaling, and until the 20th century was considered to be one of the least developed and poorest countries in the world. From that point onward, handouts from the Marshall Plan following World War II and industrialized fishing helped build a strong economy, allowing them to eventually become one of the richest nations - sustained by shrewd business and banking policies - until their banking system collapsed in 2008. (Wikipedia)
It was an extremely rare event for any whaling nation, including Iceland, to succeed in killing fin whales until the advent of fast ships in the early 20th century. Capable of reaching a speed of over 20 mph these long (second in length only to blue whales) and thin bodied cetaceans were largely able to escape the harpoons of early whalers, but then were nearly decimated within a 75 year time span. Finally protected in 1976, it is believed that some populations of these whales are inching towards recovery, but no one really knows since researchers are only beginning to understand their life cycle.
Research shows that while some fin whales appear to follow migratory routes - a whale that enjoys protection in one place and entertains us by approaching tour boats may then travel within range of deadly harpoons - others seem to linger in northern waters into early winter, dependent upon the availability of their primary food, krill and small schooling fish.
Rare sighting of a fin whale off Georgia coast
Rare sighting of a fin whale off Georgia coast
Florida Wildlife Resources Division
Whales live in a three dimensional space and although they may seem to be dispersed in an area, the scale of their lives is so huge that they can remain in contact and swim together over miles of separation, further complicating our understanding. For instance researchers were able to document by mapping the whales' vocalizations that three fin whales, a mile or more apart, exchanged vocalizations and swam in a side-by-side formation for over an hour. (Blue and fin whales observed on a seafloor array in the Northeast Pacific)
In the case of any endangered species, the loss of any single animal is not equal to another - the loss of the last breeding male, for instance, will destroy the ability of that species to recover, while the loss of a female may have less significant impact - but unless and until science understands the reproductive, migratory, cultural, and genetic factors influencing the recovery of the fin whale population we have no clear idea which, if any, can be killed.
The tissues of cetaceans are highly contaminated, so consuming them is unwise, and killing them for any other reason takes them out of the natural balance of the oceans - and we need healthy oceans if we hope to bring climate change under control.
Unless sanctions are put in place, Iceland, similar in attitude to Japan, may continue to defy the will of the rest of the world.