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Dead sperm whale in The Wash, East Anglia, England. © CSIP-ZSL.

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The whale meat transit issue and the EU

This week the UK’s Times newspaper ran an article in which the proponents of a UK exit from the European Union (EU) argued that the UK would be better placed to prevent whale meat transits through UK ports outside of the EU.

At the end of the day, whether the UK remains in the EU or leaves to stand alone, is up to the British public, but we thought it would be useful to share some thoughts on the issue raised in the Times article so that people can make up their own minds.

Is the EU generally strong in terms of protecting whales and dolphins?

Yes. The EU strictly protects all species of whale, dolphin and porpoise and any incidental capture, killing or sale of whales or whale products by EU Members is prohibited. The EU specifically prohibits international trade in whale products under Council Regulation No. 338/97 which implements the Convention in Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) in the EU Member States and which lists all whale and dolphin (cetacean) products under its highest listing, Annex A, thus being stricter than CITES itself.

The impact of this strict EU regulation means that EU member countries, such as Denmark, which have overseas territories that still carry out whaling (in Denmark’s case, Greenland and the Faroe Islands) are subject to stricter measures than maybe domestic regulation would have allowed.

Are there any loopholes or exceptions which are less helpful to those of us working to protect cetaceans?

The issue of whale meat or other whale products from Iceland or Norway passing through EU ports en route to its final destination (usually Japan) is somewhat more complicated. Remember that whale meat can legally pass through EU waters and even through its ports, as long as all paperwork is in order – and since the meat does not clear customs, it is not deemed to have entered the territory of any specific EU nation. Whale meat and whale products have passed through EU ports on several occasions in recent years, for example:

  • February/March 2013: Norwegian whalers shipped around 4.3 tonnes of minke whale meat through the ports of Rotterdam, Le Havre, Hamburg and Southampton before sailing onwards to Japan.
  • June 2013: Icelandic whalers shipped 130 tonnes of fin whale meat through the ports of Rotterdam and Hamburg before growing public protests persuaded the shipping companies involved to return it to Iceland.
  • January 2014: Around 3 tons of minke whale meat from Norway travelled through the ports of Southampton, Rotterdam, Le Havre and Hamburg before sailing on to Japan. A fortnight later, a further 34 tons of minke whale products were sent to Japan via Rotterdam and Hamburg.

If the UK public votes to leave the EU, could we then ban the transit of whale meat through UK ports?

This is not as straightforward as one might think. One problem we face in campaigning to end any such transport is the fact that, if we do  vote to leave the EU, enacting our own national ban won’t be so easy, partly due to UK legislation known as Open Port Duty.

Under Clause 33 of the Harbour, Docks and Piers Clauses Act 1847, Harbour Boards are subject to what is called the Open Port Duty. This means that the harbour must be open to anyone ‘for the shipping and unshipping of goods and the embarking and landing of passengers’, on payment of the rates and other conditions set by the Board. This legislation suggests that, even if the UK does vote to leave the EU, we would be bound by existing UK law on the legal movement of goods. Remember that whale meat can legally pass through EU waters and even through its ports, as long as all paperwork is in order and the meat does not actually clear customs.

The UK could, of course, seek to amend this law (even whilst a member of the EU), but this would not greatly deter the whalers, who would simply bypass UK ports, such as Southampton, in favour of larger EU ports such as Le Havre, Rotterdam and Hamburg. Since whale meat has passed through these latter ports more frequently than UK ports, a unilateral UK ban on transit would certainly send out a message to the whalers – and might encourage other countries to follow suit and enact their own domestic bans – but on its own, would it solve the wider problem?

In our experience, the UK Government has been actively working within the EU to help persuade all EU member states that there needs to be better enforcement of existing regulations as regards whaling, and they have been championing an anti-whaling position for the EU on the international stage. WDC wants to see a ban on whale meat shipments through EU ports and believes that this would send an important signal to whalers in Iceland and Norway that this archaic industry should be consigned to the history books once and for all.

Personally I think the question before us is, therefore, whether whales would be better off with the UK outside the EU; or with the UK actively working within the EU to create a more effective ban on whale meat transports?  This, then, begs a further and, to my mind, equally salient, question – will pro-whaling countries, such as Denmark have more sway in the EU corridors of power if a strongly anti-whaling country, such as the UK is no longer “a voice in the room”? Will we see the EU weakened by the absence of the UK, and global whale conservation damaged because one country was no longer at the table? Would a weakened EU mean it’s easier for Japan, Norway, Iceland and Denmark to achieve their ambitions?

If you are British, that choice is in your hands and the whales’ future may depend on your vote on June 23rd.