updated 10/17/2006 1:53:21 PM ET 2006-10-17T17:53:21

Iceland said Tuesday it would resume commercial whaling after a nearly two-decade moratorium, defying a worldwide ban on hunting the mammals for their meat.

Fisheries Minister Einar Kristinn Gudfinnsson told Iceland's parliament that his ministry would begin issuing licenses to hunt fin and minke whales. He said the ministry would permit the hunting of nine fin whales and 30 minke whales in the year ending Aug. 31, 2007.

The government said licenses could be issued as soon as Wednesday, and that ships could resume commercial whaling as early as this week.

At this year's meeting of the International Whaling Commission in June, Iceland and a group of pro-whaling nations including Japan and Norway narrowly passed a symbolic resolution to support ending a nearly 20-year-old ban on commercial hunts.

Officially ending the moratorium would require a 75 percent majority among members of the commission.

Icelanders have been hunting whales since the days of the Vikings, but stopped all whaling in 1989 under an international moratorium. The country continued to observe the ban after quitting the whaling commission in 1992. But when Iceland rejoined in 2002, the government said it would not be bound by the moratorium after 2006.

In 2003, Iceland resumed the killing of whales in the name of scientific testing, a move condemned by environmental groups and some nations, including the United States and Britain.

Since 2003, 161 minke whales have been hunted for research purposes in Iceland, according to the country's Marine Institute.

Minke whale meat is still readily available at some of the island's restaurants, from whales caught in fishermen's nets, and many Icelanders staunchly defend the country's right to resume hunts.

Iceland's Ministry of Fisheries said there are more than 43,000 minke whales and 25,000 fin whales in Icelandic coastal waters.

It said limited commercial hunting was "consistent with the principle of sustainable development."

Critics say the "scientific" whaling practiced by Japan and Iceland is a sham. Norway ignores the moratorium altogether and openly conducts commercial whaling.

Asta Einarsdottir, a lawyer for the Ministry of Fisheries, said the resumption of whaling "is part of our main principle of sustainable use of all living marine resources."

"Fisheries have been our bread and butter," she said. "From fisheries, we have gained what the Icelandic nation has today. We must protect and work for this principle, not against it."

Copyright 2006 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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