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Minke whale © Ursula Tscherter - ORES

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Ship of shame!

I’ve spent the past week, along with a few other die-hards, poring over marine traffic websites looking for the Alma. Last Friday, 21st March, I reported that she left  Hafnafjordur harbour, south of Reykjavik,  laden with 2,000 tonnes of frozen fin whale meat.  As soon as she was about 100 nautical miles south of Iceland, the Alma abruptly dropped off the radar, giving rise to speculation that she might have turned her tracking system off.  

A few frustrating days passed but then, bingo!, she popped back onto our radar, this time off Portugal and then again off the Canaries.  Suddenly, we had her, quite literally, back in our sights.  As I write, she is several hundred miles south of the Canaries, off the coast of Western Sahara.

From there, we can only speculate her exact route. Can this 98 metre reefer get all the way to Japan – making the mammoth sea voyage around the Cape of Good Hope and through the Indian Ocean, via Malaysia and Hong Kong – or will she need to refuel (on the high seas or at port?), or transfer her cargo to another vessel for the onward journey?  Certainly there are ports – and vessels – along the length of the African coast that may offer safe haven or support to the Alma. Places with history when it comes to dealing with controversial cargoes such as Alma’s.

This is the part I struggle with – whilst most of the world regards a vessel laden with whale meat stealing its way down the coast of Africa like a thief in the night (as one Icelandic blogger aptly put it) as a pariah, the fact is that the Alma’s mission is entirely legal, providing her paperwork is in order.  Iceland and Japan have both taken out reservations against the listing of fin whales under Appendix 1 of CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species) and therefore can legally trade this endangered species with each other.  This, of course, is outrageous and WDC is already looking hard at what can be done to close this loophole.

Meantime, the Alma heads steadily south, her hold full of dead whale and, it would appear from her Category X rating, she’s also carrying ‘noxious liquid substances’ which the IMO deems pose a major threat to human health or to the marine environment. A nasty shipment then, top to bottom.

And a needless one, at least as far as the whale meat goes – even the Icelandic media has carried reports in recent days suggesting that demand for whale meat in Japan is declining even as stockpiles increase. Indeed, Japan’s ‘whale mountain’, at around 4,600 tonnes, is almost double that of a decade ago.  

Which of course begs the question: why on earth undertake this fool’s errand in the first place? Over to you Mr Loftsson. Seems it’s not just the Alma who is all at sea.