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23rd Feb 2020

Brussels questions Icelandic whale hunt

  • A minke whale killed as part of an icelandic hunt (Photo: © Greenpeace/Jean-Paul Ferrero)

As Iceland once again defied the world with the launch of its annual whale hunt this week, the European Commission called on the country to prove that it is not engaged in commercial whaling.

"While there's an exception to the International Whaling Commission's moratorium on the hunt for scientific or indigenous whaling, Iceland still needs to be demonstrate that it is killing these whales for genuine non-commercial purposes," said commission spokesperson on environment, Barbara Helfferich.

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On Tuesday (20 May), the Icelandic Ministry of Fisheries handed out a quota for the killing of 40 minke whales.

Within hours, the whaling boat Njordur was out on the hunt. Two other boats will later join it.

Since 2006, when the north Atlantic nation - which remains outside the European Union - restarted its whale hunt, it has claimed the hunt is only for scientific or purposes or part of indigenous traditions. Last year, whalers killed 35 whales, 39 of which were to aid an Iceland Marine Research Institute project and the remaining six for commercial benefit.

This year the entire hunt is for meat.

The Icelandic coalition government is nonetheless not united on the issue. The country's foreign minister and leader of the Social Democrats, Ingibjorg Solrun Gisladottir, warned that the decision would damage Iceland's tourism industry.

The European Commission has asked EU environment ministers to reach a decision setting out a common position on the whaling.

They are to discuss whaling at the next environment council ahead of the next meeting of the International Whaling Commission in Chile (IWC) – the guardian of the international moratorium on commercial whaling - at the end of June.

The EU cannot replace the member states at the IWC as the Union only has observer status, but the commission wants to ensure that all the member states follow the same line in defence of the moratorium in this arena.

Meanwhile, the commission is attempting to win a mandate to negotiate whaling agreements at the international level, so that it can ensure the EU speaks with one voice.

Several commission attempts at winning such a mandate have been made within the council, according to a commission source. But the EU's executive body has been thwarted every time, with member states citing the Union's principle of subsidiarity – that decisions should be taken at the lowest competent authority.

"The various positions on the issue from the different member states weakens our position in the international arena," said the commission source.

You can't raise cows and pigs in Greenland

EU member states Germany, the UK and Denmark do not like the commission to speak out about whaling on their behalf.

Indeed, Denmark wants to see an end to the ban on whaling.

"You can't raise cows and pigs and hens in Greenland," said Ole Samsing, a Danish diplomat to the European Union who is also the country's IWC commissioner. "There, the people have to live off the resources of the sea."

Mr Samsing said that on Tuesday, Denmark announced to the other member states' diplomats that it would invoke a rarely used measure, 'Declaration 25', an annex to the Maastricht Treaty. The declaration refers to member states who have territories outside the EU – as is the case with the Faroe Islands and Greenland – and will allow Denmark not to be bound by the common position.

Cloning of the Japanese position

Veronica Frank, of the International Fund for Animal Welfare, the leading NGO campaigning against the whale hunt, condemned the Icelandic hunt, saying: "The move is just another cloning of the Japanese position, which under the guise of scientific or indigenous whaling, is engaging in a commercial hunt."

She said that the EU as a voting bloc within the IWC has historically played a "positive role" opposing commercial whaling.

"But Denmark is a different story," she said. "Although Denmark does not openly support commercial whaling, and claim they only support indigenous whaling in the Faroe Islands and Greenland, they have in the past aligned with pro-commercial-whaling nation Japan."

In 2006, Japan managed to cobble together a group of states to sign a declaration calling for a revision of the whaling moratorium. Denmark was the sole EU member state to vote in its favour.

"It's much more difficult for the EU to counter Japanese whaling expansion at the international level as Europe does not have a policy on whaling," said Ms Frank.

This is also true in its relations with the developing world, she said. "With a common position on whaling, the EU can put pressure on African, Caribbean and Pacific (ACP) countries through trade and co-operation agreements to adopt a more conservationist position.

"Currently, Japan is able to buy off many of these countries with financial aid in exchange for votes in the IWC. But however powerful Japan is, it's nothing compared to the pressure the EU as a whole could bring to bear."

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