Whale hunt season begins in Iceland

May 21, 2008 5:14:36 AM PDT

Despite condemnation from environmental groups and concerns by Iceland's foreign minister that a resumption of whaling could damage the country's popular whale-watching business, the government is allowing 40 minke whales to be hunted for their meat over the next six months.

Iceland stopped whale hunting in 1986 after the International Whaling Commission put a moratorium on the practice in an attempt to protect several vulnerable species. But Iceland resumed whaling in 2006, prompting protests from conservation groups and many other governments.

Icelandic whalers say the hunt is part of their tradition. Japan and Norway, which also permit limited hunts, have long campaigned with Iceland to reintroduce commercial whaling.

Conservation groups including Greenpeace and the International Fund for Animal Welfare have condemned Iceland's decision to continue hunting whales, arguing the move damages the environment and harms the country's international reputation.

Einar K. Gudfinnsson, Iceland's fisheries minister, disagrees.

"We have had a few years' experience hunting whales, both commercially and for scientific purposes. The experience does not indicate that we are harming ourselves by hunting," Gudfinnsson said.

But the country's foreign minister, Ingibjorg Solrun Gisladottir, denounced her colleague's decision, saying it thwarts attempts to bolster Iceland's tourism industry - which attracts around 100,000 annual visitors hoping to watch whales in their natural environment.

Some of those who oppose the hunt say Iceland has struggled to find a market for its whale meat.

"When Iceland killed seven endangered fin whales for commercial use in 2006, the move was met with unprecedented public outcry and the meat went straight into frozen storage with no markets found for it," said Robbie Marsland, director of the International Fund for Animal Welfare in Britain.

But Gudmundur Haraldsson, captain of Njordur, one of three ships given permission to hunt whales, dismissed such concerns as he prepared to set sail.

"We have heard there is a lot of life in the waters now, more so than in recent summers," he said. "We are optimistic."