Weighing up to 80 tons and almost twice the length of a school bus, the massive fin whale — known as the greyhound of the sea for its swimming speed — was the victim of decades of commercial slaughter that killed the whales by the tens of thousands each year. Then, in 1986, with the species on the brink of extinction, the nations of the world agreed to a moratorium on commercial whaling, and this magnificent animal got a reprieve.
Except, that is, in Iceland. Today, over a quarter of a century after the moratorium took effect, Iceland is escalating its hunting and trading of fin whales (and other whale species), in disregard for international law, economic reason and ecological sanity.
Last month, the Obama administration went on the offensive. Commerce Secretary Gary Locke condemned Iceland's "defiance of the commercial whaling ban." And, citing Iceland's illegal trade in whale meat, whale oil and other products, Monica Medina, the U.S. commissioner to the International Whaling Commission, expressed "deep disappointment" that Iceland was "not interested in cooperative international conservation of whales."
Conservation groups (including my own) recently petitioned the administration to formally certify Iceland as "diminishing the effectiveness" of the whaling moratorium and of another global treaty that prohibits trade in endangered species. The request seeks a response with teeth, in the form of significant U.S. trade sanctions against Iceland, and identifies specific Iceland-based seafood companies that traffic in whale products.
The petition should be granted because when it comes to whale conservation, Iceland is a world-class outlaw.
First, it unquestionably violates the international moratorium on whaling, one of the great global conservation achievements of the last century. The moratorium resulted in an exponential reduction in the number of whales killed for profit — from an annual average of more than 38,000 in 1986 to less than 1,250 today — and it is credited with saving a remarkable list of whale species, from the gigantic blue whale to the singing humpback to the California gray whale. Although hunting of fin whales has largely ceased, the species remains on the endangered list under both U.S. and international law. Iceland's expanding annual hunt is a notable exception.
Second, trade sanctions are essential because diplomatic efforts to persuade Iceland to stop its illegal whaling and trade have failed. The U.S. government once before certified Iceland as undermining international whaling law. That was in 2004, in response to Iceland's illegal hunting of minke whales. No trade sanctions were imposed, in the hope that diplomacy would suffice. It didn't. Since then, Iceland has become more aggressive and more flagrant in its flouting of international conservation norms.
This year, for example, Iceland landed 60 times more edible whale meat (including both minke and fin whales) than it did in 2004, and it shipped an estimated 800 tons of whale products, almost 10 times as much as in 2008, the next highest year for exports.
Third, Iceland's whaling ignores the best available science. The scientific committee of the International Whaling Commission, considered the foremost authority on whale conservation, has calculated the annual sustainable catch limit for the population of fin whales hunted by Iceland as just 46 animals. Nevertheless, in 2009, Iceland increased its annual fin whale quota to 150, and it killed 126 in 2009 and 148 in 2010. In other words, Iceland hunts more than three times the number of fin whales that, according to the best scientific evidence, the affected population can spare to survive.
Finally, Iceland's illegal whaling has little, if anything, to do with need, demand, food security or apparent economic sense. Iceland's own market for whale meat is already saturated or dying from domestic disinterest. And, according to the managing director of Hvalur, the largest whaling company in Iceland, its focus is on exports to Japan, a country glutted with whale meat from its own "scientific research whaling" program.
With whale-related tourism on the rise around the world, it's a mystery why these countries fail to understand that there is considerably more money in watching whales than in hunting them.
The Obama administration deserves credit and our strong support for demanding an end to Iceland's brutal, outdated and illegal slaughter of the world's most magnificent animals. But that demand must now be enforced with real trade sanctions, with a real economic impact that Iceland can no longer ignore.
Joel R. Reynolds is senior attorney and director of marine mammal protection for the Natural Resources Defense Council, based in Los Angeles.