Icelandic Whale Meat Arrives in Japan Via New Arctic Route

A cargo ship of whale meat has reached Japan via the Northeast passage for the first time ever. Here the carcasses of two fin whales are tied to a whaling ship as it anchors near an Icelandic processing plant in summer 2009. Ingolfur Juliusson / REUTERS

For the first time, a major cargo shipment of seafood has made its way through the Arctic's Northeast Passage. For years, the route was all but impassable to large vessels due to the extent of sea ice, but that is changing as the world warms, a topic all the more newsworthy considering President Obama is traveling to Alaska this week to speak about climate change in the Arctic.

But this particular maiden voyage is not one that many would celebrate.

On Sunday, August 30, the cargo ship Winter Bay arrived in Osaka, Japan, after leaving nearly three months earlier from Iceland. Its haul: about 1,800 tons of endangered fin whale meat.

The ship, helped through icy waters by a Russian icebreaker, took this northerly and once-impassable route to avoid protesters, according to The Japan Times. Icelandic whale shipments previously traveled a southerly course around South Africa, passing nations in Western Europe and elsewhere that generally don't support whaling, and some of whose ports are now closed to ships transporting whale meat. The northerly route runs past Norway and Russia, which are not as strongly against the practice.

The Winter Bay still ran into scrutiny while docking in Tromsø, Norway, where the international anti-whaling group Sea Shepherd attempted but failed to stop it. Pamela Anderson (among others) unsuccessfully petitioned Russian authorities to prevent the shipment.

Fin whales (Balaenoptera physalus) are listed as endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. The Convention on Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) makes it illegal to transport the meat of this animal, but this rule does not apply to Iceland, Norway and Japan, who maintain their right to such trade. Iceland and Norway openly flout the International Whaling Commission's ban on commercial whaling, but this isn't technically illegal as the organization is a voluntary one without stringent enforcement mechanisms. Japan practices whaling for "scientific" purposes, though many have said that this still amounts to a commercial catch, and constitutes an unreasonable loophole.

Whale meat consumption in Iceland has been declining for years, so it now exports the majority of its catch. Japan is one of the few countries where whale meat can still be easily found and purchased.

The Winter Bay, originally a Norwegian vessel, flies the flag of St. Kitts and Nevis, a so-called "flag of convenience." Oftentimes foreign ships will take on the flag of this or other countries that have fewer regulations and/or taxes. More than 1 million people signed a petition on the advocacy site Avaaz asking the Caribbean country to order the Winter Bay to remove its flag, which would prevent it from leaving or entering any more ports.

The campaign prompted an investigation by the St. Kitts and Nevis agriculture and marine resources minister into whether or not the Winter Bay had engaged in any illegal fishing, according to the West Indies News Network—a search that found no unlawful activity.