US Imposes Diplomatic Sanctions for Icelandic Whaling, Falls Short of Trade Sanctions

Conservation and animal protection groups express disappointment at White House decision

Washington, DC—Yesterday, President Obama announced that the United States will not impose targeted trade sanctions to address Iceland’s commercial whaling, although the President has revised and repackaged a series of diplomatic measures that US officials will be obligated to implement.

In a message sent to Congress, the President acknowledged that Iceland's actions jeopardize the survival of the fin whale, which is listed in the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) as among the species most threatened with extinction. Iceland’s actions were also found to undermine multilateral efforts to ensure greater worldwide protection for whales.

This decision comes two-and-a-half years after the President first ordered diplomatic measures against Iceland for engaging in commercial whaling in violation of the worldwide commercial whaling ban. Despite those measures, Iceland continues to kill whales—killing 35 minke whales and 134 endangered fin whales in 2013 alone—as well as export whale meat and blubber. A massive shipment of 2,000 tons of whale products is currently en route from Iceland to Japan.

Pursuant to a US law known as the Pelly Amendment, President Obama could have imposed targeted economic sanctions against Hvalur, following the February 2014 certification issued by US Interior Secretary Sally Jewell, declaring that Iceland undermined the effectiveness of CITES and its prohibition on international commercial trade in whale products. Secretary Jewell recommended not imposing trade measures against Hvalur.

While the president fell short of calling for sanctions against Hvalur (Iceland's primary fin whaling company) and its associated seafood companies such as HB Grandi, and conservation and animal welfare groups believe that such sanctions are warranted, they call on the United States to ensure that the other measures issued by the President are fully implemented, and will continue to hold the United States accountable for following through with all of the measures set out in the President’s message to Congress.

Susan Millward, executive director of the Animal Welfare Institute declared: “We are disappointed that the United States – a country that claims to be one of world's leading advocates for the protection of whales—and is ostensibly unalterably opposed to commercial whaling—refuses to impose targeted trade sanctions against Icelandic whaling operations which contravene two international treaties.” 

Allan Thornton, president of the Environmental Investigation Agency, said: “In the absence of US-imposed targeted trade sanctions, we encourage US companies and consumers to send a firm market signal and boycott all Icelandic seafood products from companies directly or indirectly linked to whaling until Iceland's commercial whaling ceases.”

Kitty Block, vice president of Humane Society International, said: “We hope Iceland will appreciate the concern that their whaling activities cause all around the world. With the growing importance of ecotourism there, we hope they move their focus from killing whales to watching them.”

Taryn Kiekow Heimer, senior policy analyst at the Natural Resources Defense Council, said: “After the International Court of Justice issued a fantastic ruling earlier this week declaring Japan’s whaling in the Antarctic illegal, the President had the unique opportunity to ride a wave of whale conservation and impose targeted sanctions that would have deterred Iceland’s fin whaling. It’s disheartening to see that the President instead chose to hide behind the same tired diplomatic sanctions that have failed in the past.”

Regina Asmutis-Silvia, executive director of Whale and Dolphin Conservation-North America stated, “We are sorely disappointed that whaling remains a black mark over Iceland. We look forward to the day when this beautiful country is known for its incredible whale watching rather than its brutal slaughter of endangered fin whales.”

Jeff Pantukhoff, president and founder of The Whaleman Foundation and its Save the Whales Again! campaign said: "In lieu of targeted economic sanctions against Hvalur, we hope that the stronger diplomatic actions outlined by President Obama against the Icelandic Government will stop its wasteful, unsustainable, and archaic whaling industry, which now has been deemed to undermine both CITES and the IWC."

Elizabeth Hogan, US oceans and wildlife campaign manager for the World Society for the Protection of Animals, said, “This is a missed opportunity from President Obama to send a strong statement that hunting endangered whales cannot be tolerated, and it stands in stark contrast to the  verdict from the International Court of Justice. We are disappointed that the Obama Administration would pass up this chance to renew US commitment to preserving the welfare and health of all whale species with targeted sanctions against companies that violate international law.”

Editors’ Notes

The full text of President Obama’s message to Congress can be found at:

On March 31, 2014, the International Court of Justice found that Japan’s whale hunt in the Southern Ocean violated its obligations under the International Whaling Commission (IWC) and called on Japan to revoke its whaling permits issued under its research program known as JARPAII, see

Since Iceland first allowed whale hunts to resume in 2003, its whalers have killed nearly 1,000 whales, including 414 endangered fin whales and 530 minke whales, by exploiting controversial loopholes to evade the whaling ban. In 1982, the IWC imposed a moratorium on commercial whaling, effective from 1986/7. Iceland did not formally object to the moratorium and left the IWC in 1992. In 2002, Iceland rejoined the IWC with a controversial reservation, not legally recognized by many nations, that Iceland claims exempts it from the commercial whaling moratorium. It resumed so-called “scientific whaling” in 2003 and commercial whaling (including of fin whales) under its reservation in 2006.

In a December 2010 petition to the Secretaries of Commerce and Interior calling for action against Iceland, 19 conservation and animal welfare groups identified specific Icelandic companies as potential targets for trade sanctions, including major seafood industry players directly tied to Iceland’s whaling company, Hvalur hf.

NGOs called for trade sanctions against Icelandic companies linked to Iceland’s “Hvalur (meaning 'whale') Group,” including Hampiðjan, one of the largest fishing gear suppliers in the world, and HB Grandi, whose chairman, Kristian Loftsson, is also the CEO of Hvalur. HB Grandi is Iceland's largest fishing and seafood export company, controlling nearly 12 percent of the country's fishing quotas. In light of HB Grandi’s role in promoting Icelandic whaling, non-governmental organizations have persuaded several fish wholesalers and retailers in the United Kingdom, Germany and the United States to agree not to source fish from HB Grandi.

In response to the Department of Commerce certification of Iceland in July 2011, in September of that same year, President Obama announced a suite of six diplomatic measures meant to censure Iceland, including linking US cooperation on Arctic projects to Iceland's whaling policy, ensuring US delegations and senior administration officials raise concerns with their Icelandic counterparts, and evaluating the appropriateness of administration visits to Iceland.

Iceland’s Ministry of Fisheries and Agriculture announced in December 2013 that it would allow commercial whaling to continue for at least the next five years. As many as 154 endangered fin whales and 229 minke whales could be killed each year under Iceland’s self-allocated quotas, which are set to run from 2014 to 2018.