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Saving Moby Dick

On Monday the International Court of Justice in The Hague will be delivering a landmark ruling. Many in the environmental and international community hang their hopes on a clear cut decision announcing Japan’s so-called scientific whaling in the Southern Ocean in breach of the global moratorium on whaling in force since 1986.

Despite threats made by Japan’s deputy foreign minister during the court hearings in June that such ruling could lead to the country abandoning the International Whaling Commission, the Japanese have also made clear they will comply with any decision by the court.

Experts believe there are mainly three possible scenarios: the court could either rule against the whale cull, or reject the case, or it could limit the hunt.

But the world court’s decision is likely to have ripple effects in the other side of the globe.

A Thursday report from AP suggests that in fact the ICJ case – and to a degree also Sea Shepherd activists who have been trying to disrupt the annual whale hunt – might be helping Japan save itself from continuing it.

AP writes:

[A]ccording to Fisheries Agency statistics, the amount of whale meat stockpiled in freezers at major Japanese ports totaled about 4,600 tons at the end of 2012, from less than 2,500 tons in 2002.

At the same time, it appears that very few in Japan actually consume whale meat, and last May it was reported that whale meat was even used for production of dog food. In addition, the AP report says, government subsidies to the Institute of Cetacean Research, the organization that runs the hunt, have been increasing almost ten fold since it started in 1987.

Two of Iceland's fin whaling vessels

Two of Iceland’s fin whaling vessels in Reykjavik port

And, in fact, the situation is not much different in Iceland, the second of only countries still engaged in whaling.

In 2003 Iceland resumed whaling. For three years it was also conducted under the banner of ‘scientific whaling’ in accordance with Article 8 in the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling. But since 2006 Iceland has been engaged in commercial whaling, openly defying the international ban by targeting two whale species – minke whales for the domestic market and fin whales for export.

And also in Iceland, after an almost 20 year long hiatus, very few now have whale meat on their shopping list. A recent novel use for whale meat was found in the rather bizarre form of whale beer.

When I visited Iceland in 2010 I had a chance to discuss the issue with quite a number of people. Eventually, I realized the debate around Icelandic whaling boils down to four main issues: environmental arguments, economic ones, national sovereignty and ethics. And eventually, while anti-whaling activists have focused most of their international campaigns on the first two arguments, for those Icelanders who actually have an opinion on the subject it appears that these are the last two issues that dominate.

But while even (minke) whalers were eyeing a share of the growing tourist magnet that is whale watching, one person is effectively the main driver behind Icelandic whale hunt.

Kristjan Loftsson, owner of Hvalur, really is the whaling kingpin. Though, the fin whales his company catches are meant strictly for export. And with a few rare exceptions this export is intended exclusively for Japan.

So, what would an ICJ ruling mean for Iceland, and particularly Loftsson? A decision to reject the case altogether, or even to reduce the Japanese catch quotas, probably won’t change much in the small subarctic country. It will not legitimize Icelandic whale hunt simply because it is not trying to call itself scientific whaling – Iceland officially acknowledges its whaling operations do not comply with the international moratorium. It simply maintains that the problem is not with the country’s conduct but with the international agreement.

But what if Japan, as a result of a court ruling, stops whaling? Such scenario is quite likely to mean intensified public pressure on Iceland. It would almost certainly be the most heavyweight pressure Iceland has seen on its whaling to date.

But Iceland, and specifically Loftsson, has resisted international protest so far. In 1986 two of Loftsson’s vessels were sunk by Sea Shepherd activists in the port of Reykjavik, who also sabotaged his whaling station (see here for a personal account of one of the vigilantes). More recently, an Avaaz petition and Greenpeace activists have managed to get shipments of Icelandic whale meat rejected from the ports of Rotterdam and Hamburg en route to Japan.

In response, the Animal Welfare Institute reported in January, Loftsson has been seeking to use Norway for transit. In February it turned out that 12 containers of whale meat were shipped from Iceland to Japan through Canada. And according to a recent press release from the International Fund for Animal Welfare, another shipment is currently making its way to Japan on board cargo ship Alma.

Cardboard boxes for Japan-bound fin whale meat on display in the Húsavík Whale Museum

Cardboard boxes for Japan-bound fin whale meat on display in the Húsavík Whale Museum

But could an ICJ ruling against Japanese whaling mean a boost to imports of Icelandic whale meat to compensate for the absence of local harvest? This remains to be seen, especially since, again, there really is not much market for whale meat in Japan. (Not that consumer demand now drives imports of Icelandic whale meat.)

In December the Icelandic government announced it keeps the yearly fin whale quota of 154 animals for the next five years, and slightly raising those for minke whales, in line with advice from the governmental Marine Research Institute.

When I visited the small factory of Hrefnivadiman minke whaling in 2010, CEO Gunnar Bergmann Jónsson told me they would like to expand and export to Japan. His main motivation was a very weak market at home.

So far there is no indication Jónsson’s aspirations materialized, and in fact in recent years, Icelandic whalers haven’t even reached their quotas.

But things could be changing. In February the US Department of Interior announced, for the second time, it recognizes Iceland’s whale meat exports to be in violation of the CITES treaty on international trade in endangered species. According to procedures President Obama will need to instruct on the appropriate actions in response this week.

So, if we are optimistic, the current, exceptionally large consignment of 2000 tons of fin whale meat now traveling to Japan might indicate that Iceland could be considering an end to whaling, of at least fin whales, and Loftsson might be preparing for the day after.

But it is also possible that this might not be the case. With Iceland’s current conservative government, the one that decided to drop the country’s EU accession process (during which the European Parliament demanded Iceland abolishes the whale hunt), arguments regarding whaling as an exercise of Iceland’s sovereignty over its natural resources are only likely to take center stage.

There are plenty of rational arguments against whaling – its profitability (and it isn’t) vis-à-vis that of whale watching, its contribution to Iceland’s overall export revenues, compatibility with international law (and specifically the CITES treaty), exercise of resource sovereignty, preservation of a cultural tradition, health concerns over whale meat consumption and so on.

Among Icelanders, however, it is indifference that prevails. On one hand, few actually eat whale meat in any of its forms. On the other hand, even proponents of whaling have one reservation – an ethical one. For them, the killing method of explosive harpoons, where minutes can pass until a struck whale actually dies, is too cruel.

Yet, the problem could be a different one: it might not be about why whales should not be hunted, but rather about what Loftsson and co. stand to gain from ceasing the hunt. The same, of course, goes for the national level. Iceland currently sees no incentive to stop whaling.

Both Iceland and Japan have seen a lot of the stick. And an ICJ ruling against Japan’s whaling would probably not be enough on its own to bring an end to Iceland’s, and neither would be American sanctions. Therefore, if the international community is to work for the good of these gentle giants, it might want to consider coming up with a carrot.


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