Currents: Week of March 24, 2014

Japanese and Icelandic whaling operations come under international fire, while seafood consumers cautioned about environmental impact of U.S. fisheries 

Remember: Public comment period supporting the release of Lolita the killer whale from captivity ends on Friday!  Submit your testimony now!

By Lauren Campbell, Conservation Manager

The annual Japanese whale hunt has once again concluded, with Japanese whaling vessels officially pulling out of the South Antarctic Treaty Zone.  While Japan has not released official statistics on the number of whales killed during the 2013/2014 season, the anti-whaling Sea Shepherd group claims that their efforts to thwart the Japanese hunt resulted in the saving of an estimated 750 minke whales.  Sea Shepherd’s latest campaign, known as “Operation Relentless”, marks the 10th year that the organization has been actively rallying against the Japanese minke whale hunt in the Antarctic Ocean. 

Although commercial whaling was officially outlawed in 1986 by the International Whaling Commission, Japan circumvents the ban by utilizing a loophole known as “scientific whaling”, in which countries are permitted to kill whales in the name of scientific research.  Whales that are killed under the scientific permit are not allowed to go to waste, a situation that essentially allows Japan to sell the whale meat on a commercial market. Ocean activists maintain, rightly so, that Japan’s “scientific research” is merely a guise through which kill whales for a profit.  Furthermore, there is neither necessity nor justification for killing whales for scientific study. 

Keep in mind that in 2010, Australia legally challenged the validity of the Japanese whale hunts in the Antarctic through the International Court of Justice.  The case concluded in July 2013 and a final verdict is expected on March 31st (next Monday!) 

Ironically, Iceland has also found itself in the midst of its own, broiling version of “whale wars”, facing potential trade sanctions by the U.S., as well as the repercussions from a highly publicized anti-whaling campaign that was launched during the Seafood Expo North America in Boston last week.  

Iceland’s sole whaling company, Hvalur hf, is owned and operated by Kristjen Loftsson.  The company undertakes annual whaling operations that mainly target fin and minke whales.  Yet due to the lack of market for whale meat in Iceland, Loftsson is currently attempting to ship an estimated 2,000 tonnes of fin whale meat to Japan, a move that was preceded only a few weeks earlier by the shipment of 12 containers of fin whale meat across Canada, also bound for Japan. 

Last month, the U.S. Government announced its intention to use the Pelly Amendment in protest against Iceland’s whaling activities.  The Pelly Amendment authorizes President Obama to ban the importation of products from countries whose fishing operations hurt the effectiveness of international conservation programs. Specifically, the U.S. Government is asserting that the Icelandic whaling operation is undermining the effectiveness  of the International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) and the CITES ban on the international commercial trade of whale products.  While environmental groups are pressing for economic sanctions to be imposed against Iceland, President Obama’s final decision on a course of action will be made public no later than April 1st

But even if economic sanctions are not imposed, Hvalur’s operations are facing a formidable opponent in the form of the coalition Whales Need Us (WNUS).  In addition to whaling, Hvalur also invests in HB Grandi, one of the largest fishing and fish processing companies in Iceland.  HB Grandi facilities have also been used by Hvalur to cut, process and pack whale meat for export.  Prior to the Seafood Expo North America, WNUS wrote letters to major US wholesalers and retailers that source Icelandic seafood, urging the companies to audit their supply chain to ensure they are not purchasing seafood from companies linked to whaling.  Just recently, High Liner Food announced that it would not be entering into any new contracts with HB Grandi, due to its connection to the whaling industry.  High Liner Foods is a leading North American seafood processor and marketer.

The coalition simultaneously initiated an ad campaign on Boston’s MBTA Silver Line that features an image of a whale under the question “Do you know who caught your seafood?”.  With the campaign, WNUS hopes to raise consumer awareness regarding the origin of seafood and to inform consumers that their seafood choices may be supporting whaling.  Visit for more information about the Icelandic companies that are linked to whaling. 

Speaking of being an informed consumer, the group Oceana recently released a startling report that blames U.S. fisheries for throwing away nearly two billion tons of their catch each year.  In the fishing industry, bycatch is the term used to describe any marine species that is caught unintentionally while targeting another species or size class.  Bycatch can include other fish species, sharks, seals, dolphins, sea turtles, crabs and even whales. 

Higher incidence of bycatch results from fisheries that utilize indiscriminate forms of fishing, such as enormous nets or extremely long fishing lines.  Shrimp fisheries are particularly known for their high ratio of bycatch to shrimp (in some cases, up to 15 pounds of bycatch are discarded for every 1 pound of shrimp caught).  Shrimp fisheries in the Gulf of Mexico and along the Southeast Atlantic seaboard utilize trawlers, enormous nets that are as wide as a football field and dragged across the seafloor.

Read the full Oceana report

Consumers have the power to change the face of fishing industries by advocating with their dollar.  Supporting fisheries that employ sustainable harvest methods and target healthy fish stocks is the best way to ensure that you promoting positive change for our ocean.  To learn more about sustainable seafood, download Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch app for your Smartphone or visit Pacific Whale Foundation's sustainable seafood site!

Oceana reports that the nine worst U.S. fisheries in terms of bycatch are:

1.       Gulf of Alaska flatfish trawl

Target: flat fish

Top bycatch species: flounder, cod, salmon, halibut


2.       California set gillnet

Target: halibut, angel shark, white seabass

Top bycatch species: seals, crabs, mackerel


3.       California drift gillnet

Target: swordfish and thresher sharks

Top bycatch species: seals, dolphins, whales


4.       Southeast shrimp trawl

Target: pink and brown shrimp

Top bycatch species: sea turtles, fin fish


5.       Northeast bottom trawl

Target: halibut, haddock, cod, yellow tail flounder

Top bycatch species: skate, dogfish, marine mammals


6.       Northeast/Mid-Atlantic gillnet

Target: monkfish, cod, haddock

Top bycatch species: sturgeon, dolphins, porpoises, sea turtles


7.       Mid-Atlantic bottom trawl

Target: black seabass, dogfish, skate

Top bycatch species: sea turtles, dolphins, pilot whales, other marine mammals


8.       Atlantic long-line highly migratory

Target: sharks, tuna, swordfish

Top bycatch species: undersized sharks, tuna and swordfish


9.       Southeast snapper and grouper long-line

Target: snapper, grouper

Top bycatch species: sharks, undersized snapper and grouper