Last week was a good week for the fin whales of the North Atlantic, a week that has been three years in the making.
In April 2010, we learned that a ship from Iceland had unloaded 7 containers of whale meat in Rotterdam for transport to Japan on a larger vessel. The Icelandic hunt for fin whales is entirely for export to Japan, not for consumption in Iceland. So our Dutch office occupied the mooring lines of the big ship and stayed there until the shipping company offloaded the containers and sailed without them. If we could stop the export then the hunt would have to stop. But Rotterdam is a big port. The containers were soon in a huge warehouse, hidden amid thousands of others. The whalers made better efforts to conceal their products and we were unable to find the containers or track another cargo.
The Dutch authorities said they were sorry but the containers were in a sort of legal limbo – they had not technically entered the Netherlands – so there was nothing they could do. We commissioned legal analysis to show them they could ban the whale meat, but they preferred their opinion to ours. We kept trying to track shipments but they kept eluding us and going to Japan.
Fast forwarded to 2013, when the owner of Iceland’s fin whaling industry, Kristjan Loftsson, announced he was resuming operations, after 2 years without catches due to the weak market in Japan, we were approached by Avaaz, a social justice and environmental group which specializes in big online mobilizations. They offered to do a petition aimed at the Dutch authorities and within weeks had collected 1,100,000 signatures and delivered them to Sharon Dijksma, State Secretary for Economic Affairs.
The Dutch authorities reacted quickly. They still preferred their legal opinion to ours but had discovered a new option – even if they could not ban the transit of whale meat they could ask the port not to transfer it. Within a few days the Port of Rotterdam politely asked the shipping companies using the port to no longer ship whale meat through Rotterdam. Inconveniently, a shipment of whale meat had just arrived in port, which needed to be leaving the port unnoticed to prevent any embarrassment. Shortly afterwards the whale meat, labeled as frozen fish, was loaded onto the first available ship and sent to Hamburg.
Greenpeace Germany met the ship with inflatables and banners in a protest to call the attention of the German authorities to this unusual and unwelcome cargo. An inspection showed the containers were mislabeled and some documents were missing. The cargo was seized. A day later the missing documents arrived and the cargo was released. The German authorities said they were sorry but the containers were in a sort of legal limbo – they had not technically entered Germany – so there was nothing they could do. Another ship arrived and Greenpeace Germany occupied its mooring lines, just as their Dutch colleagues had 3 years ago and, as before, the shipping company offloaded all the containers. Then everything changed.
The shipping company announced that they were changing policy, would return the whale meat to Rotterdam to be shipped back to Iceland and would not carry whale meat again. The Icelandic shipping company said it would return the whale meat to Iceland and would not carry whale meat in the future.
So now there appears to be no way that whale meat can travel from Iceland to Japan and the days of this export driven operation are coming to an end. We’ll be watching carefully.
John Frizell is an Oceans Campaigner at Greenpeace International.
UPDATE, 21 July 2013: The cargo companies kept their word, and the shipment of whale meat has been returned to Iceland. Activists from the International Fund for Animal Welfare were there to mark its return.