Iceland is to begin exporting whalemeat from its scientific whaling programme.
Iceland’s whaling commissioner told the BBC that up to two tonnes of minke whalemeat would be exported to the Faroe Islands.
Environmental groups say the deal breaches international rules on trading threatened species, though Iceland and the Faroe Islands say it does not.
Campaigners also say the trade could become a smokescreen for illegal hunting of whales.
Although commercial whaling is banned worldwide, Iceland, like Japan, hunts minke whales for “scientific research”; this year its boats caught about 60 individuals.
Until now, meat from the hunt has been sold in Iceland.
But the country’s whaling commissioner Stefan Asmundsson told the BBC News website that exports to the Faroe Islands will begin soon.
“Essentially Iceland and the Faroes established a joint trade area, and because of that we do not have any limits on exporting whalemeat to the Faroes any more than any other products,” he said.
“Our motivation is to increase trade and therefore prosperity in both countries.”
Countries and borders
Environmental groups believe the trade is illegal under the Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species (Cites), which prevents member countries from exporting or importing products of “listed” species unless they have tabled a “reservation”.
Iceland has tabled a reservation on minkes; but Denmark, which includes the Faroes as a dependent territory, has not.
“We think it’s illegal under Cites, and we are onto it,” said Arni Finnsson from the Iceland Nature Conservation Association (Inca).
The key issue is whether Denmark acts on behalf of the Faroes, which are now largely self-governing, in Cites matters.
In 2003, when Norway began whalemeat exports to the Faroes, Cites secretary-general Willem Wijnstekers ruled the deal illegal because of Denmark’s membership.
Since then, Denmark has told Cites that the Faroes are exempt; and the Faroes Islands government said in a statement: “In conjunction with Denmark’s ratification of the Cites convention in 1977, a unilateral declaration was submitted noting that the convention would be applicable in the Faroe Islands when the Faroese authorities had established the necessary legislation.
“As such legislation has not been established in the Faroe Islands, the declaration made by Denmark in 1977 still applies; Cites provisions… are not applicable to the Faroe Islands.”
The Danish government says it continues to press the Faroes to implement Cites legislation; in the meantime, environmental groups disagree with the Faroes exemption and are looking at the possibilities of a legal challenge.
Betrayals of trust
As often happens with whaling, protagonists on both sides of the issue cite what they see as past betrayals.
Faroe Islanders have a tradition of catching and eating whales, and say that the 1986 global moratorium on commercial hunting should by now have been lifted – which anti-whaling nations and environmental groups want to prevent at all costs.
Anti-whaling campaigners say the Faroes made a public promise in 1977, when Denmark joined Cites, to turn Cites rules into national legislation and abide by its terms.
“Twenty-nine year later, they still don’t have [national legislation]”, observed Vassili Papastavrou of the International Fund for Animal Welfare (Ifaw).
“Iceland has no DNA register of whales killed, so the tiny amount being exported will achieve nothing more than to act as a cover for illegal whaling in the Faroe Islands,” he told the BBC News website.
This year’s meeting of the International Whaling Commission (IWC) saw a victory for pro-whaling nations with the passing of the “St Kitts Declaration” approving an eventual return to commercial hunting, with the countries voting in favour including Denmark.