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Iceland Defends Hunting Endangered Whales, Forgets About The Whole "Endangered" Part

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The Icelandic government, which still conducts a yearly whaling hunt, publicly defended its catch limits as "sustainable" despite serious protests against whaling conducted this year. This claim of "sustainability" seems fishy when according to Iceland's own data, over half of the whales it expects to harvest are endangered.

Undercurrent News reports that Iceland's catch limits for the 2014 and 2015 seasons are set at 229 common minke whales and 154 fin whales. While minke whales are listed by the IUCN as "Least Concern," fin whales are listed as "Endangered," due to years of whaling and major mortality from ship collisions.

The country announced that the catch level for fin whales is around 0.8% of the stock size, while the catch level for minke whales is 0.7% of stock. "The catches are therefore clearly sustainable and consistent with the principle of sustainable development," says Iceland's ministry. There are 20,000 fin whales and at least 30,000 common minke whales in the area where Iceland hunts. While it may seem rational to assume that small numbers mean the catch is sustainable, this is not always so -- especially when it comes to fin whales.

The designation of "endangered" means that the species has declined by more than 70% over the last three generations -- surely not the description of a species that is being sustainably managed. Second, the populations only recovered after whaling was banned -- because the history of hunting fin whales dates back so far, little is known their about actual pre-whaling populations. It's impossible to claim that the species has recovered to pre-whaling numbers when scientists don't really have a sense of what their pre-whaling population was.

Iceland also notes that they are only hunting one of the fin whale's two subspecies -- the North Atlantic (the other subspecies is in the Southern Hemisphere). And while North Atlantic fin whales are faring better than their southern counterparts, the fact that one population is faring well after years of exploitation is no justification to start killing them again.

Iceland's whaling program is contentious in the first place -- whaling was banned by a global moratorium set forth by the International Whaling Commission (IWC) in 1986. But Iceland, Norway and the Russian Federation objected to the moratorium, and continue to whale (Japan does so as well, but under the guise of "scientific research"). In February, the U.S. declared Iceland in defiance of the IWC ban, but failed to impose sanctions.

Iceland has started catching its quota this year -- dozens of whales have already been hauled ashore. But according to an AP report from March, whale meat is piling up in freezers in Japan (Iceland's largest buyer of whale meat), due to declining demand from consumers.

Whale meat not used for study is sold as food in Japan. But according 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.

Greenpeace is currently campaigning against Icelandic whaling, targeting one whaler who controls all of the fin whale exports to Japan. You can learn more about the campaign and send a letter to the White House urging President Obama to impose sanctions on Iceland for its whaling program here.

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