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US Considers Sanctions on Iceland for its Fin Whale Hunting Program

Feb 07, 2014 03:27 PM EST

The US government says that Iceland's whaling program is undermining international regulations on protecting endangered species and expressed the possibility of opening sanctions against the Nordic nation.

Iceland openly defies the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora's (CITES) and its prohibition on international commercial trade in whale products.

"Just 25 years ago, commercial whaling had nearly driven whales to extinction, but thanks to a global effort to conserve whale stocks and end over-harvesting, several whale species have begun to recover," Interior Secretary Sally Jewell said in a statement. "Iceland's whaling activities undermine these worldwide efforts to conserve whales."

(Norway openly defies the CITES ban as well. Japan also hunts whales, but says its actions are legal through a loophole in the CITES regulations that allows whales to be killed for scientific research.)

US law requires the Cabinet to report to the President when it "determines that nationals of a foreign country are diminishing the effectiveness of an international fishery conservation program."

Following such a report, the President has 60 days to review it and decide whether or not to impose economic measures, including trade sanctions .

In 2011, President Obama faced a similar situation, but declined to enforce sanctions. Instead he "directed federal agencies to undertake a number of diplomatic actions to encourage Iceland to change its whaling policy," according to the US Fish and Wildlife Service.

The Icelandic whaling controversy is centered around the whaling company Hvalur, which the USFWS reports is the only Icelandic company engaged in harvesting fin whales. After a market decline following the March 2011 earthquake, tsunami and nuclear incident in Japan, Hvalur resumed its fin whale hunts in 2013. Hvalur killed 134 fin whales last year, and Iceland (which determines its own catch quotas) recently announced new fin whale quotas which allow up to 770 to be killed in the next five years, according to the USFWS.

Japan is the largest buyer of Icelandic fin whale meat, the USFWS said, adding that between 2008 and 2012 more than 1.6 million kilograms (3.5 million pounds) of fin whale meat and products were exported to Japan.

"Killing endangered fin whales is not only brutal, it's short-sighted. Iceland should not be allowed to ignore the fact that, regardless of some temporary financial reward, this practice is simply unsustainable and cruel," said Taryn Kiekow Heimer, a senior policy analyst Natural Resources Defense Council, an influential non-profit group. "The US must lead global action by imposing strong economic sanctions to end this senseless and illegal practice once and for all."

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