The US has opened the door to trade sanctions on Iceland over its hunting of fin whales and exports of whalemeat.
Commerce Secretary Gary Locke has formally told President Obama that Iceland’s hunt threatens the species, which is globally endangered.
The president has 60 days to give his response, which can include trade bans.
Iceland resumed commercial whaling in 2006, and the fin whale catch has since risen to about 150 per year, with most of the meat exported to Japan.
But Iceland’s fisheries minister said the country’s whaling was based on “sound science”.
“Iceland’s disregard for the International Whaling Commission’s (IWC) global moratorium on commercial whaling is unacceptable,” said Mr Locke.
“Its harvest of whales and export of fin whale meat threaten an endangered species and undermine worldwide efforts to protect whales.
“It’s critical that the government of Iceland take immediate action to comply with the moratorium.”
He also notes the country’s smaller annual catch of minke whales. Most of this meat is eaten locally, though some has been exported.
Iceland left the IWC in 1992, but controversially re-joined a decade later with the condition that it could resume commercial whaling in 2006, which it did.
Generally, commercial whaling has been banned since 1986.
Iceland’s Fisheries Minister Jon Bjarnason said he was surprised at the US move given that Icelandic whaling was “based on sound science” and sustainable.
“The annual quota of minke whales is 216 from a stock of approximately 70,000 animals, and the annual quota of fin whales is 154 from a stock of approximately 20,000 animals,” said a ministry statement.
“The fin whale stock in the North Atlantic is abundant and in very good shape, and is in no way connected to the stock in the Southern Ocean which is in a poor state.”
The fin whale quota is calcuated by Icelandic scientists based on computer models developed under the IWC’s aegis.
The models can be “tuned” to produce quotas that are more or less cautious.
The current Icelandic quota is about three times higher than the figure the IWC would recommend based on the more conservative tuning it has decided is appropriate.
The process Mr Locke has instigated is “certification” under the Pelly Amendment to the Fishermen’s Protective Act of 1967.
He recommends measures stopping short of a trade sanction, including instructing diplomats to raise the issue in talks with their Icelandic counterparts, and reviewing any projects in which the US co-operates with the Arctic nation.
One possible casualty could be a proposed pan-Arctic search and rescue station near Reykjavik, for which Iceland is seeking US support.
But his letter to Mr Obama notes that “the Pelly Amendment authorises you to direct the Secretary of the Treasury to prohibit the importation into the United States of any products from Iceland…”
A number of anti-whaling groups have been calling on the US to take such a step; and the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society (WDCS) described Mr Locke’s action as “a massive step forward”.
“The only way to make sure that whaling is finally ended in Iceland is for the president to send a strong and unambiguous message to Iceland’s whaling industry – and that means sanctions,” said Kate O’Connell.
The US has certified Iceland on several previous occasions over whaling, but has yet to impose trade restrictions.
However, there is a feeling among US officials that the size of the whalemeat trade to Japan, plus smaller exports to other countries, presents a new and serious threat to the well-being of Atlantic fin whales.
The company behind the fin whale trade, Hvalur hf, has not hunted any this year because of poor market conditions in Japan following the March earthquake and tsunami.
But it does intend to take to the seas again if and when the market improves.