Late last week the Winter Bay, a freighter carrying 1,800 tonnes of fin whale meat – Iceland’s entire catch from the 2014 whaling season – arrived in Tromso, Norway, 200 miles north of the Arctic circle. It will stay there until July 1st and then sail over the top of Russia, through the Northern Sea Route – a passage which is increasingly navigable to commercial vessels thanks to thinning of the sea ice caused by global warming – on its way to Japan.
No shipment from Iceland has gone this way before. This unusual route is because of the unusual cargo. The owner of Iceland’s fin whaling industry, Mr Loftsson, used to send his whale meat via the international sea freight cargo network using European ports. But in mid-2013 Greenpeace actions in Rotterdam and Hamburg, and a 1.1 million signature petition by Avaaz, closed these ports to whale meat. Shipping lines began to refuse to handle whale meat. Even one of Iceland’s two shipping companies refused to carry it.
Fin whales are an endangered species, listed on CITES Appendix one which forbids all international commercial trade. Only three of the 181 CITES member countries have filed reservations which allows them to ignore this ruling: Iceland, Japan and Norway.
Loftsson moved away from European ports, and in January, 2014, sent whale meat to the East coast of North America labelled as ‘Frozen Seafood Balaenoptera physalus’. The US barred it from their ports. Canada allowed it and seven containers travelled 4,000 miles across Canada by rail. However, after Greenpeace Canada exposed this, the shipments stopped.
So, in March, 2014, Mr Loftsson chartered his own ship for the first time. He emptied his warehouses of 2000 tons of meat, loaded it onto the Alma, and sent it south around the Cape of Good Hope expecting no opposition. But once Greenpeace Africa informed the people of South Africa that there was a huge outcry, the Alma‘s planned port stop in Durban was cancelled. She refuelled from a moored tanker off Mauritius, making headlines there, and continued to Japan without once going into port.
These efforts bring little or no financial gain to Mr Loftsson. The market for whale meat is collapsing in Japan because young people don’t eat it and Japan’s whalers are unable to sell all their catch. But Mr Loftsson says that although he is not making much profit now, he hopes to build the market. He claims that there is a decreasing supply of whale meat in Japan and therefore a demand for his product.
Meanwhile, the Winter Bay lies dockside in Tromso. She has the lowest possible ice classification and will only be allowed to transit the Northern Passage if conditions are ideal. But, other ships ply Tromso harbour and transferring the cargo is a possibility. Three weeks ago the Icelandic media was reporting that the Winter Bay was going to Japan via Luanda in Angola. Now they say the ship is going via the Northern Passage. The truth is hard to know. We say that the Winter Bay should return to Iceland and Mr Loftsson should accept that there is no need for more whaling.
John Frizell is an Oceans Campaigner for Greenpeace UK.
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