BRUSSELS, Belgium, October 5, 2009 (ENS) – Twenty-six countries Friday issued a joint statement putting diplomatic pressure on Iceland to abandon whaling. Icelandic whalers have killed more than 200 whales so far since June, including endangered 125 fin whales and 79 smaller and more abundant minke whales.

The joint demarche, a formal diplomatic protest signed by the United Kingdom, the United States, Australia and 12 European Union countries including Germany, France, Portugal and Spain, states that the 26 governments are “deeply disappointed” with the former Icelandic government’s decision to authorize commercial whaling.

Earlier this year, the outgoing Fisheries and Agriculture Minister granted commercial whaling quotas of up to 150 fin whales and 100 minke whales a year for five years.

The current government has kept these kill quotas in place for one year, and increased the catch allocation to 200 fin whales and 200 minke whales for 2009, despite what conservationists say is a limited domestic market for minke whale meat and no market for fin whale meat.

“I am extremely disappointed to hear that nearly 200 whales have been taken so far this year,” UK wildlife minister Huw Irranca-Davies told the “Telegraph” newspaper.

A similar demarche against Icelandic whaling under the previous government was issued by 26 countries in November 2006.

Shortly before Friday’s demarche was issued, the International Fund for Animal Welfare and other animal welfare groups staged a protest outside the Icelandic Embassy in London.

They called on the Icelandic government to heed the international criticism and support responsible whale watching as a humane and profitable alternative to the cruelty of whaling.

Robbie Marsland, UK Director of IFAW, said, “The eyes of the world are on Iceland as we urge them to stop this cruel and unnecessary slaughter of whales. Citizens of the UK and many other countries around the world view the commercial killing of whales with disgust.”

“Iceland’s persistence in continuing with its inhumane and unsustainable whaling puts it out of step with the rest of Europe,” said Marsland. “Whales shot with explosive harpoons can take more than half an hour to die, and Iceland is also killing an endangered species for which no market has been found.

Hvalur whaling vessels in Reykjavik harbor, Iceland (Photo by Wurzeller)

“The obvious lack of market for the meat means these whales are being killed just to be stored in a freezer for years to come,” he said.

Opinion polling and independent economic research in Iceland has revealed little appetite for whale meat, while responsible whale watching, by contrast, is financially lucrative and one of the country’s most popular tourist activities, generating €5m a year for coastal communities.

This season’s hunt is the largest since the 1980s and was marked by another a bloody milestone. Kristjan Loftsson, the owner of the Hvalur whaling company, the only company licensed to hunt fin whales in Iceland, “celebrated” the death of the 15,000th fin whale killed since the company was started in 1947.

The first Icelandic whale meat exported to Japan in 20 years went on sale in Japan last December. The trade is legal because both Iceland and Japan have registered exemptions to rules banning international trade in whale products.

Loftsson told BBC News that this export was designed to re-introduce fin meat to Japanese palates.

“The whalers don’t care about the conservation status of whale populations, they don’t care about the image of their country, they don’t care about anything other than their own profit,” says Chris Butler-Stroud from the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society.

Fin whale (Photo courtesy NOAA)

“Millions of kronur have been spent by the Icelandic government to promote whaling at a time when Iceland’s economy was unraveling,” Butler-Stroud said.

“Iceland’s hunt is a haunting reminder of the excesses of the commercial whaling industry, and the reason why the moratorium on whaling needs to remain in place,” he said. “The world’s governments must do much more to enforce this ban, and it is now up to the EU to stand up to the test, and prove what species conservation means to it.”

Iceland applied to join the European Union in July, and conservationists hope the accession process will put further diplomatic pressure on Iceland to stop whaling.

Conservationists are calling on the European Union to take a clear position on Iceland during the EU accession negotiation process. Fishing quotas and whaling are expected to be the toughest questions in accession negotiations.

“It is impossible to even think about an EU Member country being allowed to continue whaling,” says Butler-Stroud. WDCS is very concerned that this message might not have been heard yet by the Icelandic government.”

Iceland’s government has a target date of 2012 for joining the European Union; accession will be subject to a referendum in Iceland.

The latest opinion poll in Iceland produced by Capacent Gallup for the Federation of Icelandic Industries and published on September 15, 2009 shows a majority of Icelanders opposes EU membership, with 61.5 percent saying they would vote against joining the EU in a referendum were held now and 38.5 percent saying they would vote in favor.

The Icelandic Ministry of Fisheries defends the country’s whaling activities by saying Icelandic whalers kill no endangered whale species.

“Iceland is a consistent advocate of the principle of sustainable use of natural resources. This is reflected in Iceland’s whaling activities, which have never involved any of the endangered whale species, killed on a large scale by other whaling nations in the past,” the ministry says on its website.

But, fin whales, Balaenoptera physalus, are listed as Endangered by the authoritative Red List of Threatened Species maintained by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, IUCN.

The Red List estimates that the global population of fin whales has declined by more than 70 percent worldwide over the last three generations (1927-2007).

Back in February the new government issued a statement promising to reassess the “basis for whaling” before preparations begin for the 2010 whaling season. The reassessment will include, for instance, research on the macroeconomic importance of whaling, which will evaluate the relative weight of various interests.

The Fisheries Ministry says the Whaling Act of 1949 will be reviewed this winter by a three-person committee.

Specific ocean areas will be demarcated for whale watching, where all whaling will be prohibited, the ministry said, to prevent clashes between these two industries.

Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2009. All rights reserved.