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REYKJAVIK, Iceland - Iceland raised it quota on whale hunting Tuesday to 250 a year, a dramatic increase over past levels.

Outgoing fisheries and Agriculture Minister Einar Gudfinnsson announced the change in a news release, which didn't provide any reasons for the increase.

"Total allowable takes of fin and minke whales for the next five years will be according to scientific recommendations of the (Icelandic) Marine Research Institute," the ministry said.

Last year, whalers were authorized to catch nine fin whales and 40 minke whales. The International Conservation Union lists both fin whales and sei whales — but not minke whales — as endangered species.

Icelanders have been hunting whales since the days of the Vikings but halted commercial whaling in 1985 only to resume the practice in 2006.

Gufinnsson's announcement follows suggestions by International Whaling Commission officials that Japan could be authorized to resume commercial whaling off its coast, in return for killing fewer whales for scientific research in the Antarctic.

Iceland and Norway are the only countries to authorize fishermen to hunt whales to sell for their meat. Both countries choose not to recognize IWC rules which stipulate that whales may be killed for research but not for commercial purposes.

Japan insists its whaling is solely for scientific research, though opponents claim the research expeditions are a cover for commercial whaling, because the whale meat is sold on the market.

Gufinnsson is a lawmaker with Iceland's Independent Party, which said on Monday it had disbanded the coalition government which it had led since elections in 2007.

Ministers are due to be replaced by members of a new coalition between Iceland's Social Democratic Alliance Party and the Left-Green movement. The coalition opposes commercial whaling, but it was not immediately clear whether it would attempt to reverse the ministry's decision to raise whaling quotas.
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