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A ship carrying endangered whale meat dodged anti-whaling activists by heading to Japan via the Russian Arctic, a passage conservationists say illustrates another threat posed by a warming climate.
The 260-foot Winter Bay put into Osaka at the end of August with an estimated 1,800 tons of meat from fin whales caught by an Iceland-based company. The conservation group Sea Shepherd, which tries to disrupt whaling operations, followed the Winter Bay as far as the Norwegian port of Tromsø, Sea Shepherd founder Paul Watson told VICE News.
"The Winter Bay stayed in Tromsø until mid-August before leaving," Watson said. "We couldn't really do much, because the Norwegians dispatched two of their coast guard vessels to shadow us everywhere we went."
The Winter Bay had permission from the Russians to sail the Northern Sea Route, an increasingly ice-free stretch of the Arctic Ocean that hugs the Russian coast. The Russians refused that permit to Sea Shepherd, leaving it unable to follow, Watson said.
Iceland and Norway still allow commercial whaling in defiance of a 1986 international moratorium. Whale meat is still eaten by some in Japan, and Japan has allowed whaling under an exemption for scientific purposes — an assertion that the International Court of Justice at the Hague dismissed in 2014.
Patrick Ramage, the director of whale programs at the International Fund for Animal Welfare, told VICE News the voyage of the Winter Bay "is certainly not a milestone that we welcome."
"It can't be seen to portend anything good for the conservation of the Arctic environment, or for whales or other species that depend on that environment and already face more threats today than at any time in history," Ramage said.
Fin whales are the world's second-largest animal, growing as large as 80 feet (24 meters). They're classified as an endangered species, with fewer than 90,000 believed to remain worldwide, according to the World Wildlife Fund.
"We're hoping to get the Russians to agree that they shouldn't be allowing whale meat from an endangered species to pass through their territory," Watson said.
Moscow is a signatory to the CITES treaty, which bars international trade in endangered species. Actress-turned-animal-rights advocate Pamela Anderson went to a Russian economic conference in Vladivostok this week to lobby the country's environment minister in support of banning future shipments, but Russia rejected her earlier pleas to deny passage to the Winter Bay.
"Russia could lead the way in worldwide protection and conservation of cetaceans by banning all whale and dolphin products and banning the capture of orcas and other dolphins for display in marine aquariums," Anderson said in a statement from the conference.
The Arctic is warming at twice the rate of the rest of the globe, and its sea ice cover has been shrinking for decades. That's opening up new sea routes along the northern shores of North America, Europe, and Russia — and causing "unprecedented changes" to traditional cetacean habitats, WWF Arctic species specialist Pete Ewins told Vice News.
Fin whales usually live in the northern temperate waters of the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. But warming temperatures have driven them to higher latitudes, putting them in competition with existing Arctic species like bowhead and beluga whales or narwhals, said Ewins.
"Those whales are highly stressed, especially by ice retreat at unprecedented levels," he said.
Meanwhile, the prospect of increased commercial fishing in the region threatens to reduce the amount of food for the massive mammals. And as warming driven by fossil fuel consumption makes the Arctic more accessible, it's made the estimated reserves of oil and gas in the region more accessible.
All of those pose threats to whales, which also can die when snagged in fishing gear, hit by ships' propellers, or fouled by an oil spill. Ewins said humans need to come up with "a smarter and better-balanced" approach to the Arctic before pouring into the North the way they have swarmed other frontiers.
"Most sentient people agree that humans appear to be crashing along and are about to set up the same mistakes," he said. Whale populations will need to be monitored and managed long-term for both those species and the indigenous Arctic populations that still depend on them for subsistence, he said.
"Unfortunately, at the regional and local level, resource-hungry nations right now are prioritizing GDP as the basis, maximizing economic growth," Ewins said.
There have been some steps taken to slow the rush. The United States, Canada, Russia, Norway and Denmark agreed in July to ban commercial fishing in the currently ice-bound central Arctic until further studies of the area can be conducted, for instance. Arctic Council countries are trying to remap the region's waterways to get a better picture of their navigational hazards.
But if there's a major oil spill — either from a shipping accident or a blowout at an offshore well like the one Shell has begun off Alaska — "there's no proven technique to recover oil from those icy waters," Ewins said.
Whale populations have been rebounding since the nearly 30-year-old commercial whaling ban took effect, he said. But he said the long-lived animals will need centuries to return to the levels before the era of large-scale commercial whaling began 200 years ago.
Both the United States and the European Union have protested Iceland's refusal to halt whaling, and Ramage said Icelandic lawmakers have become increasingly uneasy with it. The island nation has no domestic market for whale meat, and Japan's taste for it is rapidly diminishing: Only 14 percent of Japanese reported eating whale meat in a 2014 newspaper poll.
Meanwhile, Watson said Sea Shepherd is pondering whether to redeploy its ships to the Bering Strait to harry any future whale meat cargoes that pass through the Arctic. But he said tourism in Iceland, where only one company still hunts fin whales, may soon get them out of the business.
"It's starting to become a threat to whale watching, which is become a much more profitable industry to Iceland than whale killing," he said.
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