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Is Icelandic fin whale meat on its way to Japan?

I’m increasingly feeling a sense of déjà-vu, since receiving a report a few days ago that the Winter Bay (the vessel chartered last summer by Iceland’s sole fin whaler, Kristjan Loftsson, to ship  whale meat to Japan) had slipped out of the small harbour at Hafnarfjörður, south of Reykjavik, Iceland.  Significantly, perhaps, the vessel disappeared from shipping sites from July 22nd and by the time it reappeared on August 3rd (with retrospective data indicating its departure from Hafnarfjörður on July 28th), it was already almost as far as Tromsø, in Northern Norway, arriving there on Thursday, August 4th.

After spending a short time at Tromsø, the vessel moved to an offshore position off Buvika, on the west coast of an archipelago west of Tromsø. Local reports indicate that, over Friday and Saturday, a smaller vessel moved alongside the Winter Bay. Full floodlights were in use, along with cranes, presumably employed to move cargo between the vessels. During this period, the vessel again disappeared ‘off the radar’ but then on Sunday 7th, the Winter Bay abruptly headed off, showing its next destination as Osaka, Japan.

So, the million dollar question: is there whale meat aboard? Is fin whale meat – and possibly also minke whale meat – once more being shipped between Iceland and Japan?

At this stage, it is impossible to say for sure, but so far, the route mirrors that taken last year when 1,800 tonnes of fin whale meat were shipped via Tromsø and up through Russia’s Northeast Passage, to Osaka, Japan. Working with our colleagues at Animal Welfare Institute (AWI), enquiries have already revealed that the Winter Bay once more has a permit to cross the Northeast Passage.

We will, of course, be monitoring this vessel as far as possible and would be grateful for any information about its cargo. If there is whale meat aboard the Winter Bay, this would suggest that Kristjan Loftsson has mended his rift with Japan, his sole market.

Back in February, we celebrated his announcement that there would be no hunt this year. Loftsson hinted at a major falling-out with Japan, bitterly citing problems exporting his meat and denouncing Japanese whale meat analysis methods, claiming “If we had known what was in store in Japan, we would never have started [fin whaling] again”.

At that time, the lack of a buyer for last year’s record catch of 155 fin whales meant that hunting further fin whales – when Loftsson had yet to offload his existing stocks – was neither logistically, nor financially, a good idea. However, whilst we can still celebrate the fact that there is no fin whale hunt this year, we now need to establish whether trade with Japan has indeed resumed, with all that this implies with regards to any future hunting of fin whales.

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