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Iceland to resume whaling

A minke whale on board a Japanese whaling ship
A minke whale on board a Japanese whaling ship

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REJKJAVIK, Iceland -- Icelandic whalers are to put to sea again after a 14-year break.

Iceland announced a moritorium on whaling in 1989 in the face of international pressure.

Its government has now decided to allow a limited resumption of whale hunting both for "scientific purposes" and because increasing numbers of whales are allegedly threatening the country's fish stocks, especially cod.

An annual quota has been set of 100 minke whales, 100 fin whales and 50 sei whales. According to Gisli Vikingsson, of Iceland's Marine Research Institute, hunting will resume in the next few days, with three ships setting out from undisclosed locations at undisclosed times, to avoid protesters.

Thirty-eight minke whales will be caught during an initial six-week hunting season.

"The Norwegians do it, the Russians do it, the Americans do it, the Japanese do it," says Vikingsson. "Why can't we?"

The International Whaling Commission (IWC) outlawed commercial whaling in 1986 after it emerged that 7 of the 13 great whale species were endangered.

Norway never signed up to the ban -- it killed 634 minke whales in 2002 -- while Japan has also continued whaling, exploiting a loophole in the ban's wording that allows whaling on "scientific" grounds (it currently catches some 500 minke whales per year).

The ban exempted indigenous peoples in Siberia, Greenland and the U.S. state of Alaska, who were permitted to continue "subsistence" whaling.

Iceland delegation
The Iceland delegation walking out of the 2002 IWC conference in Japan

Iceland's decision to end its moratorium is likely to draw strong criticism both from the international community and environmental groups.

"It will arouse a huge amount of anger," says Della Green of the International Fund for Animal Welfare. "Iceland's taking a big risk. Its whale-watching industry is worth around 5 million per year ($8 million). The resumption of whaling could potentially have an extremely detrimental impact on that industry."

Her comments were echoed by Asbjorn Bjorgvinsson, chairman of the Icelandic Whale Watching Association.

"We fear a strong reaction abroad, and...a terrible side effect on the tourist industry and fish export," he said.

Despite fears of a possible backlash against the country's tourist and export sectors, however, polls within Iceland show that 75 percent of its 290,000 population are in favour of the resumption.

"If the sea is full of whales, it is OK to hunt them," said Svanur Thorvaldsson, a 31-year old salesman from Rejkjavik.

Jon Gunnarsson, head of the pro-whaling group Ocean Harvest, agreed.

"I think whaling could contribute to the tourist industry in Iceland," he told Reuters. "Before whaling was stopped, the whaling station was one of our most popular tourist sights."

Some 43,000 minke whales -- much smaller than fin and sei whales -- are now believed to live in Icelandic waters, consuming an estimated two million tonnes of fish and krill every year. According to Fridrik Arngrimsson of the Federation of Icelandic Fishing Vessel Owners, which is pressuring for a resumption of full commercial whaling, the whales have diminished local cod stocks by 10-20 percent, a figure disputed by environmental groups.

"It's a ridiculous statement," says Green. "The reason fish stocks have diminished is because of overfishing."

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