WASHINGTON — The United States on Wednesday threatened Iceland with economic sanctions over its commercial whaling, accusing the country of undermining international efforts to preserve the ocean giants.
After a pressure campaign by environmentalists, Commerce Secretary Gary Locke certified Iceland under a domestic law that paves the way for retaliation against nations that flout the International Whaling Commission's moratorium.
"Iceland's harvest of whales and export of fin whale meat threaten an endangered species and undermine worldwide efforts to protect whales," said Locke, who oversees the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
"It's critical that the government of Iceland take immediate action to comply with the moratorium," he said in a statement.
Under a law known as the Pelly Amendment, countries that violate global fisheries conservation agreements are subject to economic sanctions. Locke sent a letter to President Barack Obama, who must decide within 60 days whether he will authorize sanctions or other measures.
Locke also recommended that the United States reconsider cabinet-level visits to Iceland and cooperation on Arctic projects. The United States has recently stepped up its focus on the Arctic Ocean, as climate change is set to make it more navigable.
The International Whaling Commission imposed a global moratorium on whaling in 1986 amid alarm at the declining stock of the marine mammals. Norway and Iceland are the only nations to defy the moratorium openly.
Japan hunts more than 1,000 whales a year, a point of intense dispute with Australia. But Japan considers itself within the rules of the International Whaling Commission by invoking a clause that allows a catch for scientific research.
Japan has actively campaigned to end the moratorium, saying that whaling is its cultural right. Environmentalists counter that whale populations are at risk and highlight the mammals' intelligence, saying the slaughter is cruel.
Locke's certification came days after the latest annual meeting of the International Whaling Commission, which again was severely hampered by disputes.
Iceland, which resumed commercial whaling in 2006, is seen as less entrenched in its position than Japan and Norway. Iceland, a country of 320,000 people, has a small market at home and its exports to Japan are uncertain.
Iceland's whaling company, Hvalur, suspended fin whaling after Japan's March 11 earthquake hit demand. Iceland killed about 150 fin whales and between 60 and 80 minke whales last year.
The United States has previously invoked the Pelly Amendment against Norway and Japan but it has not followed through on sanctions, hoping instead to use the certification as a means of pressure.
Environmentalists urged Obama to go ahead with sanctions unless Iceland ends whaling.
"We are excited that the US has taken this first really important step in ending Iceland's commercial whaling for fin whales and minke whales," said Karen Vale of the World Society for the Protection of Animals.
"However, it is just a first step, so we are hopeful that the White House will decide to put forth the sanctions," she said.
The Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society said in a statement that more than 250,000 people had sent appeals urging action on Iceland, a campaign "that has clearly influenced the US government's thinking."
One of the few times that the United States has imposed sanctions over animal issues was in 1994 when it barred wildlife imports from Taiwan over concern about the trade in tiger and rhinoceros products.
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