HELSINKI — The United States is set to announce possible trade and diplomatic sanctions against Iceland for ramping up its whale hunts despite an international moratorium on commercial whaling.
The Obama administration on Wednesday will cite Iceland under a domestic law that allows the president to act against foreign nationals or countries who flout international animal conservation rules, U.S. officials told The Associated Press.
After the announcement the president has 60 days to decide on sanctions. Sometimes, the threat of sanctions is enough to make targeted countries change their practices.
The move comes less than a week after the annual meeting of the International Whaling Commission stalled in discord between pro-whaling nations such as Iceland and Japan and their opponents.
Iceland, Norway and Japan continue to hunt whales despite a 1986 moratorium on commercial whaling. The U.S. is particularly concerned about Iceland's escalated hunt for endangered fin whales and its recent resumption of exports of whale meat to other pro-whaling nations.
Iceland has tried to cultivate a trade in fin whale meat that "just wasn't there" before, an official with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration told AP.
"If there was to be a trade in whale meat again the moratorium against whaling would have a hard time surviving. Other countries might want to get into the action and whale stocks just haven't recovered," the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity ahead of the formal announcement.
Wildlife conservation groups have lobbied the Obama administration to take action against the Nordic island nation through the Pelly Amendment to the Fishermen's Protective Act. U.S. officials said Commerce Secretary Gary Locke would cite Iceland under the amendment on Wednesday and recommend a range of possible sanctions against Iceland to President Barack Obama.
They include targeting legitimate fish imports by Icelandic companies that are also involved in whaling. The president will also be urged to consider a number of diplomatic sanctions, ranging from U.S. officials simply lobbying their Icelandic counterparts more forcefully on whaling to Cabinet members boycotting official visits to Iceland. State Department diplomats could also pull out of programs – for example in the Arctic – where the two countries routinely cooperate.
The Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society (WDCS) described the U.S. decision as "a bold move ... and represents a massive step forward in the fight against Iceland's illegal whaling."
WDCS says Iceland has killed 280 fin whales since it resumed commercial whaling in 2006, exporting millions of dollars of meat, blubber and oil to other pro-whaling nations.
Iceland has increased its self-allocated fin whale quota to 150 animals per year, three times what the IWC's scientific committee considers sustainable for the species' survival.
The main target of anti-whaling activists is Hvalur hf, the only Icelandic company that hunts fin whales. Hvalur's CEO Kristjan Loftsson, who is part of his country's IWC delegation, is often criticized by anti-whaling groups for his fin whale catch and killing methods they say are unnecessarily cruel.
The NOAA official said that Loftsson has been stockpiling culled fin whale meat in cold storage, and "acts as if there will be a market for this product, but there really hasn't been so far." The official added that Loftsson "takes profits from his other fisheries business to support his illegal whaling business."
In May, Loftsson's company announced a temporary halt to its 2011 fin whale hunt, in part a response to a previous U.S.-led diplomatic protest, but also because of market uncertainties in Japan after the earthquake and tsunami.
Another reason the U.S. is applying domestic law to a foreign country is because of the relatively ineffectual IWC, the international forum intended to manage whale numbers and bring together pro-and-anti whaling groups.
In recent years the IWC has been beset with allegations of corruption, and this year's meeting in the Channel Islands saw Iceland, Japan and Norway grind proceedings to a halt over issues such as whale killing methods, animal welfare, the establishment of conservation zones and whether to grant more rights to environmental groups to be represented at IWC conferences.
Monica Medina, the U.S. commissioner at the IWC said the lack of progress in those talks means "it's up to countries who care about conservation and whales to use diplomatic and domestic legislation like this one."
Medina's view is shared by New Zealand, a leading anti-whaling nation.
"It is very helpful that the U.S. is in a position to take this sort of action" said Gerard Van Bohemen, who heads New Zealand's IWC delegation. "As long as we are unable to advance the discussions in the IWC, people will look to find other ways of bringing about an end to commercial whaling."
Previous U.S. administrations have used the Pelly Amendment to warn other countries for their whaling practices. In 1986, 1990 and 1993 Norway was cited for hunting minke whales; and in 1992 Norway was again certified for killing whales for research. However the U.S. didn't follow through with trade and diplomatic sanctions.