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A Southern Resident killer whale leaps into the air. The Southern Residents are an endangered population of fish-eating killer whales. Credit: NOAA

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Iceland shipment to Japan could contain meat from rare hybrid whales

WDC, along with a number of conservation and animal protection organisations, is calling on the Japanese government to prove that a shipment of Icelandic whale products that arrived in Ishinomaki, Japan, on November 14th does not include illegally imported meat from hybrid blue-fin whales. 

The Icelandic Hvalur whaling company has slaughtered 145 endangered fin whales and two very rare hybrid blue-fin whales in 2018, in defiance of the International Whaling Commission’s (IWC) international ban on commercial whaling. Iceland justifies its self-allocated whaling quotas through its disputed reservation to the ban.


The trade in fin whale products from Iceland to Japan is technically legal because both countries have reservations to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) Appendix I listing that prohibits commercial trade in fin whales and fin whale parts and products. However, Japan does not have a reservation to the CITES Appendix I listing for blue whales and is therefore prohibited from importing blue-fin hybrid whale products.

Hvalur has stated that the company has no plans to export meat and blubber from hybrid whales, and Japanese officials have acknowledged that the products cannot be legally imported. However, conservationists on the ground have raised concerns that Hvalur did not separate the meat and blubber of the hybrid whales from the fin whales. The Icelandic government has not commented on whether the company followed the appropriate procedures to verify that no hybrid products were included in the exports.

Vanessa Williams-Grey, policy manager at WDC, Whale and Dolphin Conservation, added, “There is a valid concern that the meat and blubber from the hybrid whales were not properly separated. Given the current deafening silence from the Icelandic authorities on this issue, the onus is on the Japanese authorities to confirm that this shipment does not contain illegally imported blue-fin whale hybrid meat.”

Last month, the Azure Coast (formerly the Winter Bay) left Iceland carrying 1,500 metric tons of whale meat and blubber to Japan, via the Northeast Passage. This is the fourth consecutive year this vessel has been commissioned to transport whale meat to Japan. Japan recently relaxed its regulations regarding whale meat imports, making it easier for both Icelandic and Norwegian whalers to export their products.

“It is unfortunate that Japan’s import requirements for whale meat have been weakened at the exact moment when more oversight and greater transparency is needed to ensure that potentially illegal whale meat and blubber from protected whales, including blue-fin hybrids, are not entering the Japanese market,” said Kate O’Connell, marine wildlife consultant for the Animal Welfare Institute.

The recent biennial meeting of the IWC strongly rejected Japan’s proposal to resume commercial whaling, instead agreeing to an alternative vision for the 70-year old body that focuses on the recovery of cetacean populations, nonlethal management issues and conservation.

Clare Perry, Ocean Campaign Leader at the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) said: “Japan is already in hot water with CITES over its illegal trade in sei whales hunted in the North Pacific. The inability of Icelandic whalers to distinguish rare blue-fin hybrid whales from fin whales further demonstrates that this industry cannot be adequately managed. We are requesting full transparency from Japan on the steps they are taking to ensure that this recent shipment does not contain meat or blubber from rare blue-fin hybrid whales.”

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