Does Japan really want to buy old fin whale meat as Loftsson empties his freezers?

Kristjan Loftsson, fin whaler, at Hafnarfjordur 2017

Is Kristján Loftsson finally clearing out his freezer of 'old meat' from endangered fin whales? Judging by the amount of activity yesterday at the harbourside at Hafnarfjörður, south of Reykjavik – and local news reports - it would certainly seem so.  Loftsson is Iceland’s only fin whaler but thankfully, following a very public spat with Japan - his only market - no fin whales have been killed since 2015 by his whaling company, Hvalur.  However, tonnes of meat from previous hunts have remained in storage: until now.

 

Pallets of fin whale meat, Hafnarfjordur, Iceland

Contacts were able to take photographs as a cavalcade of lorries brought meat from the Hvalur freezer facilities, with trucks coming and going most of the day. Pallets loaded with brown boxes of whale meat, variously labelled 900kg or 1800 kg, were loaded onto the Winter Bay, which as I write, remains in the harbour.  However, given that the vessel is currently reporting  its destination as Murmansk on the 22nd of August , it is likely to set off imminently. Interestingly, Mr Loftsson himself was at the scene to oversee operations and even appeared to have ‘minders’ stationed at both the Hvalur freezer in Hafnarfjörður and at the harbour.

Regular blog readers may recall that the Winter Bay has been Loftsson’s vessel of choice for his nefarious cargo since 2015, when I reported a game of ‘cat and mouse’ as the vessel, laden with over 1,800 tonnes of fin whale meat, initially stated its destination  firstly as Luanda (Angola) and then Tema (Ghana) -  but after leaving Iceland, promptly headed due north!  After a lengthy stopover at Tromsø, northern Norway, the Winter Bay then navigated Russia’s often treacherous Northeast Passage, en route to Japan.

Last year, the same boat followed an almost identical route, again stopping off at Tromsø  before once more crossing the NEP and reaching Osaka on September 9th, with a cargo of around 1,530 tonnes of fin whale products.


Winter Bay

So, yesterday’s loading of fin whale meat did not come as any surprise.  I’ve been working with our colleagues at the US-based Animal Welfare Institute (AWI) and with contacts in Iceland to monitor this vessel since February.  We started to notice a pattern of activity which saw the Winter Bay plying a regular route, variously visiting Norway, the Faroes, Latvia and Iceland: all regions which either kill whales, or in Latvia’s case, import their meat.

This activity stepped up last month, when the Winter Bay left the Faroes on July 12th, bound for Murmansk in Russia.  We were able to track the Winter Bay, both online, and with the assistance of contacts on the ground in Norway.

 

The Kato off Hammerfest, northern Norway

True to form, the Winter Bay went off radar for long periods, but we were able to monitor online a suspicious-looking ‘link-up’ between the Winter Bay, and a minke whaling vessel, the Kato, some distance offshore from Hammerfest, northern Norway, on 15th July. The Kato was loaded with minke whale meat at the time and the Winter Bay also visited the freezer terminal/minke whale meat offloading site at nearby Rypefjord.  Given that the Kato was later observed at Rypefjord loading white boxes (which possibly contained whale meat) ON board, we may only speculate as to what exactly was going on during these encounters. The Kato had a heavy-duty crane on board and all this activity rings alarm bells, echoing equally suspicious goings-on involving the Winter Bay when it was off Tromsø last summer.

The Winter Bay reached Murmansk on July 17th as scheduled, and then headed back down to the Faroes late last month, travelling to Velsen in the Netherlands in early August. The vessel left Dutch waters on August 8th bound for Iceland  – taking us full circle to where today’s blog begins.

Is this shipment legal  and what can be done?

The shocking truth is that Iceland and Japan have both taken out reservations against the listing of fin whales under Appendix 1 of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) and, therefore, can legally trade this endangered species with each other. Iceland is the largest exporter of whale meat: Japan the largest importer.

We don’t yet know the size of the current shipment, but we do know that, since 2006, Hvalur has exported close to 9,000 tonnes of fin whale products to Japan.

WDC thoroughly condemns this escalating trade in whale meat, which undermines CITES.  A recent global analysis of trade in Appendix 1 species by the United Nations Environment Programme’s World Conservation Monitoring Centre specifically highlighted trade in meat from fin whale (as well as minke whale) as an issue of concern.

Whilst we can still celebrate the fact that there has been no fin whale hunt for two years, we now need to establish whether Japan is still interested in purchasing Icelandic fin whale meat trade - with all that this implies with regards to any future hunting of fin whales - or whether (as of course is our fervent hope) Mr Loftsson has emptied his freezers of fin whale meat for good.

We will be working with our international colleagues and contacts to monitor this vessel’s moves very carefully in coming days, trying to establish exactly how much fin whale meat the boat is carrying and whether any other whale meat is added along the way. We will be seeking to exploit any opportunity for the vessel's cargo and paperwork to be scrutinised, particularly as we know that the Winter Bay has an official NSRA permit to cross the Northeast Passage - in which case, its final destination is once more likely to be Japan.  

Please support our work to end whaling in Iceland once and for all.