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ANCHORAGE - The president of Iceland said Monday it would be wrong to ascribe any motive other than research to the country's first whale hunt in more than a decade.
Iceland launched three ships on Sunday to begin hunting for 38 minke whales this month and next, despite the contention of several governments, including the United States, there is no scientific basis for the research.
Animal welfare groups worry the hunt is a first step to determine international reaction to the possible resumption of commercial whaling by Iceland.
Asked if that were the case, President Olafur Ragnar Grimsson said: "I don't think we can assume that." Grimsson was in Anchorage to attend the Alaska Pacific University's Institute of the North conference to discuss social, economic, political and cultural issues common among Arctic nations and states.
The purpose of the hunt is to study the stomach contents of the whales to measure their effect on fish stocks such as cod, which are vital to the national economy.
"We are taking 38 whales out of a population of (about) 43,000," Grimsson said. "This is not commercial whaling. This will cost us a lot."
The International Whaling Commission banned commercial whaling in 1986 to protect the endangered mammals but approved restricted hauls for research programs. Iceland carried out research whaling for three years after the ban - catching fin and sei whales - but then halted the hunts altogether in 1989.
Under whaling commission rules, members can issue permits to kill whales for scientific purposes.
Animal welfare groups and several nations opposed to whaling were outraged by the hunt. The International Fund for Animal Welfare has representatives in Reykjavik, the capital, and the Greenpeace flagship Rainbow Warrior was on its way to the country.
"This is commercial whaling. They are perverting the name of science to slaughter animals," Tony Banks, a lawmaker with the Labor Party told the BBC in Britain.
Whale meat not used by scientists for research will be sold to consumers in Iceland.
The country's Marine Research Institute estimates there are 43,000 minke whales in Icelandic waters and says the hunts will not affect the population.