U.S. Declares Iceland in Violation of Global Whaling Ban, May Impose Sanctions

The U.S. Department of Commerce has formally declared the nation of Iceland to be in violation of the IWC global commercial whaling ban, and, in a first, the Obama administration may impose economic sanctions against the whaling nation.


Icelandic whaling vessels
Icelandic whaling vessels (credit: Wurzeller)

[updated] On July 20, 2011, U.S. Dept. of Commerce Secretary Gary Locke formally declared the nation of Iceland to be in defiance of the International Whaling Commission’s global ban on commercial whaling. The declaration was met with over-whelming approval by numerous NGOs and conservation groups the world over.

Iceland’s action, it is asserted, undermines the IWC’s effectiveness in its mission to protect and conserve dwindling and endangered whale populations by hunting whales — especially endangered fin whales — above and beyond its allotted quota. As a result of the commerce secretary’s declaration, President Obama now has 60 days to decide whether to impose economic penalties and/or trade sanctions against Iceland. Such sanctions are authorized under legislation known as the ‘Pelly Amendment’.

“It’s clear Iceland won’t stop whaling until the world demands it through strong economic pressure. The U.S. must impose serious sanctions.” — Taryn Kiekow of the Natural Resources Defense Council.

The U.S. had previously deemed Iceland and other whaling nations (primarily Norway and Japan) to be illegally conducting whaling operations in defiance of the IWC ban. However, if Obama was to take action, this would be the first time trade sanctions would be imposed on another nation for this reason, setting a conservation precedent that nearly every conservation society would heartily welcome.

Controversially, under current IWC rules, three nations (Japan, Iceland, Norway) are “allowed” a yearly quota of whale captures (though, non-endangered ones), as, historically, these nations have been heavily invested — commercially and culturally — in whaling. However, said quotas are supposed to decrease each year (as the goal is to phase out the industry) according to a specific, agreed upon system. The system, however, has many loopholes.*

According to the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC), in 2009, Iceland significantly increased its whaling quota to 150 fin whales per year. This number represents more than 3 times the the catch limit that would be allowed under IWC guidelines if there were no moratorium in place at all.

Minke whale meat kebabs, Reykjavik
Minke whale meat kebabs, Reykjavik

The NRDC further asserts that as of late 2010, Iceland’s quotas and exports of whale products reach “record levels.” As a result, 19 U.S.-based NGO’s filed a “Pelly petition” asking the Secretary to certify Iceland’s violation of the whaling ban (pursuant to the Pelly Amendment) and to urge the imposition of trade sanctions. The petition specifically advocated targeting Iceland’s “fisheries-related businesses linked to its whaling industry”.

Official counts are that Iceland has killed 280 endangered fin whales and more than 200 minke whales since it restarted its commercial whaling operation s in 2006.

According to the NRDC website: “In the last two years alone, it has exported over 1,200 tons of whale, blubber and oil, worth more than $17 million to Japan, as well as additional shipments to Belarus, the Faroe Islands, Latvia and Norway.”

Under the domestic law (the Pelly Amendment), the president is authorized to take actions against foreign nationals or countries who flout international animal conservation rules (note: such “rules” are not in fact, “laws”, but strongly advocated “guidelines”; consequently, some nations defy these rules)

Recent negotiation efforts between Iceland, the U.S. and the IWC, were deemed a “failure”**,  leaving the U.S. with few choices but to take stronger steps — including imposing economic penalties and sanctions. However, this is not a sure thing, as Iceland is still reeling from the financial collapse, and, under WTO rules,  sanctions could be considered to be “barriers to trade”, giving Iceland some recourse (possibly monetary compensation from the U.S and other nations participating in the trade sanctions).

Still, as distasteful as paying a nation not to kill whales sounds, it may be the surest route to saving the whales…As in all matters, nothing in the conservation world is a sure thing. Stay tuned!

* Under IWC guidelines, a certain number per year of whale “captures” is permitted for “scientific research”.

** See the news article Greenpeace Condemns Whaling Nations’ Sabotage as IWC 63 Closes in Jersey

Read the NRDC press release: U.S. Declares Iceland in Defiance of Global Commercial Whaling Ban, and, visit the Animal Legal and Historical Center to learn more about the Pelly Amendment.

Further Notes: This author reported on a controversial, proposed change in this quota system early last year (Controversial New Whaling Quotas Proposed by IWC). Under the proposed new rules, quotas for “scientific research” would be allowed, but ships had to carry human monitors and tracking beacons. This measure was to counter the exploiting of the loophole which has led to an increase in whale kills since the 1990/s. Also, the proposed rule would establish the  South Atlantic Ocean sanctuary.

Top photo: (Icelandic whaling vessels)Wurzeller ; CC – By – SA 3.0

Second photo: (minke whale meat) Thjurexoell ; CC / PD

7 thoughts on “U.S. Declares Iceland in Violation of Global Whaling Ban, May Impose Sanctions”

  1. I don’t believe that we trade in whale blubber with Iceland or any whaling nation.

    As for large, industrial trade, Iceland buys mostly aluminum from the US (also aircraft, inorganic chemicals, vehicles, and machinery)

    It is also ranked ahead of European countries in terms of per capita consumption of US goods (Iceland buys twice as much as other EU countries). As for what we trade or buy from Iceland…this is mostly in the form of scientific research (medical research). The NSF also has funded joint USGS geological studies with Iceland and the island nation is becoming a center of Arctic and marine research.

    In 2009, US and Iceland signed the Trade and Investment Cooperation Forum Agreement. According to the US Trade Rep site, “Two-way goods trade between the United States and Iceland was $835 million in 2007. U.S. goods exports to Iceland in 2007 totaled $630 million, including aircraft, inorganic chemicals, vehicles, and machinery. U.S. exports of agricultural products to Iceland totaled $19 million.”

  2. Iceland, Japan, and Norway do not ‘flout’ international conservation rules anymore than the US does when it hunts 65 Bowhead whales each year under the ASW program of the IWC. The rules of the IWC and the ICRW treaty that created it, allow members to lodge objections to amendments to the schedule like the moratorium was. Iceland and Norway have formal objections to the moratorium, while Japan whales under scientific research provisions. These countries also have reservations filed under CITES that allows for them to engage in trade of many species of whales.

    Secretary Locke should know better and stop posturing. These countries and the US all whale, maybe for different reasons. But they all whale within the framework of international conservation rules.

    1. Thanks for posting your comment.

      I would appreciate a citation for your sources regarding US whale kills.

      I believe that the current uproar is over the increase (above quota) of an endangered species (the Atlantic fin whale), primarily.

      There is no whale meat market in the US; any US whaler that engages in whaling for commercial purposes (food, oil, perfume, etc.) needs to have a foreign market “in”. Japan’s use of the “scientific research” exception is viewed with great suspicion by other non-whaling nations because they (the Japanese) have a known, and sizable, market for whale meat, blubber, etc., as well as other marine species products like shark fins.

      Same goes for Iceland. I don’t have any information on Norway’s whale product market.

      Regardless, you do make they implicit point that these rules are just conventions, and can be “suspended” for a variety of nationalistic, economic reasons.

      My impression is that the CITES exceptions are in constant review mode; one might presume that the administrators of the CITES conventions and progressive member of the IWC would have knowledge of each other’s work/mission. Perhaps they will eventually match up and/or synergize the conservation effort into International Law…but, I suspect that dire economic times for some will win over politicians’ (who can point at their preserving of human jobs as a success) support for any such Law. In economically strained times, environmental and conservation laws and conventions tend to get broken, exceptions tend to be applied more frequently.

      So, it seems that the only way to thwart this reckless tendency is show that preserving the species (diminishing whale kills) has a more positive impact on economic activity than the whaling markets do.

      1. Information on US bowhead quota is from IWC. The ASW allotment is done in four year increments. The current quota period is from 2008 thru 2012. “-A total of up to 280 bowhead whales can be landed in the period 2008 – 2012, with no more than 67 whales struck in any year (and up to 15 unused strikes may be carried over each year).”

        Actual catch amounts vary from year to year, but average seems to be upper 40’s to low 50’s. Some recent high years:

        A quick look at the CITES reservations entered by parties regarding whales indicates that most of them are long standing reservations going back decades. This should be familiar territory for Secretary Locke. I believe these to be hard and fast positions by the countries involved.

        As to a current uproar for Fins ‘above quota’, there is no commercial quota. There is work that has been done for quite some time now by the Scientific Committee of the IWC that has been recommended but not accepted by the general membership. The Revised Management Scheme has set ‘safe’ catch limits for a variety of species, but the general membership does not seem willing to consider opening that door. Strange that that number should be cited by those opposing Iceland’s program. If willing to accept the ‘safe’ number for Fins, are they willing to consider the RMS recomendation and adopt in its entirety?

        1. A. Wilson:

          Thanks for this additional information.

          While the news article specifically focuses on the US reaction to Iceland’s whale captures, it is important to remember that many other nations regularly capture/kill whales according to set/agreed to quotas…with some going over their quotas.

          Your stats do highlight the double standard of larger national powers in regards to whale hunting.

          that aid, we should also keep in mind that allowing whale kill quotas, does not obligate or mean that said quotas must be met, or will be met.

          As to the CITES “reservations”, these may indeed be long-standing ones, but they are not set in stone; scientific recommendations (as to how many kills is “safe” for a given species) are under continuous review and informed by marine studies and counts.

          Of course, political and economic (although one wonders how much whaling contribute to our economy) pressures also come into play here, as always.

          Perhaps the current uproar is due to a perceived threat to the IWC’s authority (such as it is) to regulate and set whaling quotas.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Scroll to Top