It is hard not to feel despondent as I track the small green triangle that is the Alma via the Marine Traffic site. Last month, reports suggested that Kristjan Loftsson personally supervised the loading of her cargo of 2,000 tonnes of Icelandic whale meat (mostly fin whale, we believe) at Hafnafjordur harbour, south of Reykjavik, before her departure on 21st March. As I write, the last ‘ping’ she put out in terms of her location was just past Singapore, indicating that she is heading at a fair rate of knots towards the South China Sea: Cambodia to her port side, Indonesia and then the Philippines to starboard and Taiwan dead ahead. According to her itinerary, her crew expects to reach their destination, Tokyo, by next Monday, 5th May.
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I speculated whether this 98-metre reefer might make the long sea voyage all the way to Japan or would have to refuel or transfer her cargo at some point along the route. So far, she has managed to keep going, refuelling and re-supplying almost entirely at sea. At one point, around 10th April, her itinerary suddenly flashed up that she was heading for port in Durban, South Africa, allowing we NGOs to alert the relevant authorities in case the opportunity presented itself to examine her paperwork or cargo for any irregularities.
This would, in any case, have been a long shot. Whilst this shipment disgusts millions of people, it is entirely legal, providing her paperwork is in order and the meat is properly refrigerated and conforms to hygiene regulations. 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 and therefore, they can legally trade this endangered species with each other.
However, in the event, the Alma abruptly changed her destination to show only her final port, Tokyo – almost certainly because she had been warned against attempting to dock in Durban due to major protests by over 23,000 South Africans, angry at the notion of playing host to this vessel and its sickening cargo, however temporarily.
Instead, the Alma motored on as far as Port Louis, Mauritius, where she stopped briefly just before Easter weekend – her timing almost certainly no coincidence, when many government offices are shut. Since then, she has made steady progress towards the South China Sea.
We have, of course, alerted contacts and official agencies along the way, but firstly, we’ve had to make an educated guess as to her route; secondly, she would need to put into port for long enough for us to muster the authorities to check her credentials, and thirdly, either her paperwork or the condition of her cargo would have to be suspect. Assuming her crew is wise to public protest and thus keeps her far offshore, refuelling at sea, we have little hope of stopping the Alma before she reaches Japan.
The biggest irony of course, is that Japan is currently fighting a negative PR battle in the face of huge international criticism and attention focussed on its whaling activities, exemplified by the recent ICJ ruling against its ‘scientific’ whaling in the Antarctic and in the wake of President Obama’s recent visit. The last thing Japan needs is a vessel arriving, laden with yet more whale meat to join its groaning stockpiles in the face of diminishing market demand.
We may not stop the Alma, but the writing is already on the wall for Japan’s market for whale meat.