Does your Seafood Come with a Side of Whale?

Americans consume more than 5 billion pounds of seafood each year, 85 percent of which is imported. Although, historically, little information has been provided about the origin of this fish, American consumers are beginning to ask questions about the sustainability of the catch and demand that animal welfare issues be taken into account.

Public opinion polls commissioned by numerous animal protection groups show that consumers want to be sure, in particular, that they are not supporting whaling when they buy seafood. Two-thirds of respondents in both the United States and United Kingdom indicated that they are prepared to stop purchasing Icelandic seafood products based on their opposition to Icelandic whaling.

AWI is educating both the public and buyers within the seafood industry concerning the ties between the whaling and fishing industries. Our primary focus has been to expose the links between Iceland’s whaling industry and HB Grandi, Iceland’s leading seafood company. The company’s chairman, Kristján Loftsson, is the managing director of, and a key shareholder in, the Hvalur hf whaling company. In addition, HB Grandi’s fish processing facilities are used to cut and pack whale meat. Since resuming commercial whaling in 2006, Hvalur has killed more than 400 endangered fin whales and exported nearly 5,000 metric tons of whale products, mostly to Japan, in defiance of international law.

Our initial outreach to major US seafood buyers (see the Spring 2012 AWI Quarterly) induced Whole Foods Market (WFM) to commit to a whaling-free purchasing policy, and to require that, henceforth, all WFM Icelandic seafood vendors provide a written affidavit stating that they or their company are not involved in whaling. Although that and other retailer commitments were positive steps, HB Grandi sought out other customers, and continues to export fish to the United States.

AWI has recently joined forces with more than a dozen animal protection and environmental organizations—all members of the Whales Need US coalition of US groups opposed to commercial whaling—to call on leading seafood retailers and wholesalers to publicly oppose Iceland’s whaling industry. To that end, we have written to dozens of US retail and food service companies, asking them to conduct full audits of their seafood sources and commit to a whaling-free seafood supply chain.

In mid-March, AWI and its partners launched an advertising campaign in Boston aimed at thousands of North American Seafood Expo attendees, which include key seafood suppliers and buyers from the food industry. Large ads ran on buses and subway trains that took people between the expo site and Boston’s Logan International Airport. The ads featured an artistic rendition of a whale with the question “Do you know who caught your seafood?” and a website address: The website explains which whaling-linked Icelandic companies sell to US buyers, and invites people to call on President Obama to take decisive action against Iceland’s whalers by blocking imports of fish from Icelandic companies tied to whaling (which, unfortunately, he failed to do—see box opposite page).

As the seafood expo opened, High Liner Foods, a leading North American seafood company, announced its own commitment not to purchase products sourced from Icelandic companies linked to whaling. The High Liner statement said the company is not supportive of any commercial whaling or trade in whale products, and that it was committing not to enter into any new contracts with HB Grandi until that company fully divests itself of any involvement and interest in whaling. Later, Trader Joe’s responded in similar fashion, stating that the company opposes commercial whaling and will conduct an audit of its suppliers to confirm there are no links to any whaling.

Given the disappointing decision by President Obama not to impose targeted trade sanctions on Icelandic companies with ties to whaling, we believe it is now up to US commercial interests and consumers, with our assistance, to use their collective and significant economic clout to end Icelandic whaling.

A Missed Opportunity to Help End Icelandic Whaling
President Obama announced on March 31 that the United States will not impose targeted trade sanctions to address Iceland’s commercial whaling. Instead, he revised and repackaged a series of diplomatic measures from two years ago that US officials will be obligated to implement.

Under a potentially powerful US law known as the Pelly Amendment, President Obama could have imposed targeted economic sanctions against Iceland’s whaling company, Hvalur, in an effort to halt its whaling. The president’s announcement followed a February 2014 certification issued by US Interior Secretary Sally Jewell, declaring that Iceland’s trade in whale products undermines the effectiveness of an international trade treaty—the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES)—given that treaty’s prohibition on international commercial trade in whale products.

In his message to Congress, the president acknowledged that Iceland's actions jeopardize the survival of the endangered fin whale—the second largest animal on earth—and undermine multilateral efforts to ensure greater worldwide protection for whales. Yet he chose to call for diplomatic measures against Iceland, measures that have been tried before without success.

The president first ordered diplomatic measures in 2011 against Iceland for commercial whaling in violation of the international commercial whaling ban. Despite those measures, Iceland continued to kill whales—35 minke and 134 fin whales in 2013 alone—as well as export whale meat and blubber. A massive shipment of 2,000 tons of whale products left Iceland just days before the president’s announcement, en route to Japan.