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Sperm whale (physeter macrocephalus) Gulf of California. The tail of a sperm whale.

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We have to close the Northeast Passage to whale meat!

The Winter Bay, the cargo vessel chartered by Icelandic fin whaler, Kristján Loftsson, arrived Thursday morning at the port of Tromsø in Norway. So much then, for her skipper’s stubborn persistence for many days in notifying that her destination would be Tema, Ghana. Our suspicions were raised last week when, rather than heading south from Iceland, the Winter Bay, with her cargo of an estimated 1,800 tonnes of fin whale meat, headed steadily northwest. And so it has proved: the Winter Bay will not follow the same route as the Alma did last summer when she travelled down the African coastline and up through the Indian Ocean and South China Sea to Japan.  Instead, she will attempt to go ‘over the top’, taking the risky Northeast Passage. Or so we currently believe – since ‘smoke and mirrors’ is often Mr Loftsson’s preferred modus operandi  though we do know that on 25th May, the Winter Bay was issued a permit to travel that route, confirming Ghana as merely a red herring.

This latest escapade makes me both angry and concerned: angry, because last summer, I witnessed endangered fin whales being pulled out of the water hand over fist and these same whales are now being shipped halfway round the world, presumably because Loftsson needs the freezer space to accommodate this year’s catch. His intention to offload his stockpiled meat in Japan not only flouts the global ban on commercial whaling but also undermines CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species).

I’m concerned too, on several levels. Firstly because the Northeast Passage is a difficult route at the best of times and questions have been raised about the Winter Bay’s seaworthiness as she was laid up in the harbour at Hafnarfjordur for some weeks before departing, reportedly with mechanical problems. Certainly, as a single-hulled ship, rated Ice Class 1, she has only very basic ice strengthening.  The Northeast Passage is closed until July due to thick ice and most vessels attempting to use the route before September will require the services of an ice-breaker.

Winter Bay

Add to the mix the fact that Aquaship, the Winter Bay’s management company, has a history of safety and  labour violations – and that the Winter Bay is flagged to St Kitts and Nevis, which votes with Japan at IWC (International Whaling Commission) meetings and was “yellow-carded” by the EU only last December for illegal fishing activities – and it isn’t too far fetched to worry, firstly, about crew safety, should an accident happen in those remote polar waters, and secondly, about the potential for damage to the sensitive Arctic ecosystem.

The fact that Loftsson is even considering such an undertaking illustrates his desperation to get his meat to Japan – and proves that he is fast running out of options. Thanks to public and NGO protest, ports such as Rotterdam, and shipping companies such as Samskip and Evergreen Lines, have refused to accept his cargo: previous routes through Europe or across the Americas are now almost certainly closed to him (although in the case of European ports, we continue our campaign to see this enshrined in EU legislation and not merely a voluntary ban by individual ports).

The Northeast Passage is probably the last – and only route – open to Loftsson. We need to close it! You can be sure that WDC will be working with our allies and official agencies to explore every avenue to stop the Winter Bay going any further and close this route to whale meat.

This madness has to stop.