AWI Working to Keep Whale Products out of US Ports

Each year, nearly 12 million cargo containers enter the United States via a network of 360 US seaports. Monitoring, tracking and inspecting such a huge number of shipments is a major challenge for those intent on stemming the rapid escalation in wildlife trade—illegal wildlife trade, in particular.

Trade in whale products, for one, has increased over the past decade. Since resuming commercial whaling in 2006, the Icelandic company Hvalur has shipped 5,540 metric tons of endangered fin whale meat worth more than US$50 million to Japan, in defiance of a ban on commercial trade in whale products imposed by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES).

As part of AWI’s efforts to stop Iceland’s whaling and trade in whale products, our researchers track customs documents to identify those companies that purchase seafood from Icelandic companies linked to whaling (see Spring 2012 AWI Quarterly). This retail campaign has led to several companies making pledges not to source from Icelandic companies with such links.

In early 2014, media reports indicated that Canadian government officials had allowed a shipment of Icelandic whale meat to arrive at an eastern Canadian port in January. The cargo was subsequently transported cross country by rail and shipped to Japan. Following this revelation, the AWI team tested whether the tracking technology used in our retail campaign could be employed to determine whether any similar shipments might have occurred in the United States.

Sifting through documents, the team found that whale meat had indeed transited US ports on at least two occasions, in December 2013 and January 2014. According to documents obtained by AWI, which include US customs data and a bill of lading, two containers, holding 964 cartons of frozen whale meat, had been shipped from Iceland to Portland, Maine, on board the cargo vessel Westerkade, chartered by the Icelandic shipping company Eimskip.

The Westerkade arrived in the United States on December 25. From Portland, the vessel made its way to Halifax, Canada, where the containers were offloaded on December 29. By tracking the container numbers on the shipment, AWI concluded that these containers were part of the same shipment acknowledged by Canadian officials. The whale meat was transported by train to Vancouver, British Columbia, arriving on January 26.

Once in Vancouver, the containers of whale meat were loaded onto the cargo vessel La Scala, owned by the French corporation CMA-CGM. The La Scala departed Vancouver on January 31, arriving in Seattle, Washington, on the same day. The ship eventually sailed for Japan on February 2, arriving in Yokohama, Japan, 10 days later.

The bill of lading that AWI obtained for the shipment indicated that the meat was destined for the Misaka Trading Company. According to research done by the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA), Misaka Trading was set up as an import business in Japan several years ago at the request of Hvalur CEO Kristján Loftsson. According to the EIA, Hvalur pays both the shipping and import costs for Misaka Trading.

In the fall of 2014, AWI wrote to the US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), National Marine Fisheries Service, and the US Department of Customs and Border Protection and shared the evidence that indicated that whale meat had passed through US Customs in both Portland and Seattle. We also provided the agencies with a thorough legal analysis, outlining our position that these transits violate various federal laws.

The fin whale is designated as “endangered” under the US Endangered Species Act (ESA) and is also listed in Appendix I of CITES, signifying that trade in specimens of these species is permitted only in exceptional circumstances. According to the ESA, transports of fin whale meat via the United States are considered as imports, not as in-transit shipments. This regulation requires strict permitting—a measure the United States put in place to ensure greater protection for those CITES-listed species that are also covered under US laws.

Fin whales are also protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act. This law generally prohibits the importation into the United States of any marine mammal or marine mammal product without requisite permits. The shipments also appear to violate the Lacey Act, which states that it is unlawful for an individual, association or corporation to import, transport or engage in foreign commerce in wildlife “taken, possessed, transported, or sold in violation of any law, treaty or regulation of the United States” or in violation of any foreign law.

According to the bill of lading, incorrect commodity codes were used to identify the contents of the Hvalur shipment. The paperwork indicated that commodity code 020810 (frozen rabbit meat) was used, instead of code 020840 (frozen whale meat).

Further, the shipping documents failed to accurately identify the species being shipped, as the contents were described as “Frozen Edible Produce (Balaeno Ptera Physalus)” instead of the correct scientific usage, Balaenoptera physalus. The Lacey Act clearly states that it is unlawful to submit false records, or any false identification of any wildlife transported into or through the United States in interstate or foreign commerce.

The US government agencies responded swiftly to the AWI documents, contacting us within days. As a result of our research, an interagency group has been established to investigate the incidents. If it is concluded that federal laws were indeed violated, AWI is hopeful that the US authorities will prosecute the offenders to the fullest extent. This would include prohibiting Hvalur and the other companies involved from shipping products to or through the United States.

AWI has requested that the agencies pursue other actions to prevent future imports or transits of meat from endangered whales, and to improve the capacity of their personnel to identify and seize such shipments that fail to comply with US laws. USFWS officials have indicated that they are looking into possible computer software mechanisms to allow for such shipments to be identified and stopped in real time.

Given that there are only 330 USFWS inspectors and agents currently assigned to US ports—a number that has not changed in 30 years despite a dramatic rise in wildlife trafficking—AWI is hopeful that more will be done to prioritize wildlife trafficking enforcement.