Iceland announced Tuesday that it would resume commercial whaling after a two-decade moratorium, defying a worldwide ban on hunting whales for their meat.

Fisheries Minister Einar Kristinn Gudfinnsson told Iceland's parliament that his ministry would begin issuing licenses to whaling ships 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 whaling ships could resume commercial whaling as early as this week.

CountryWatch: Iceland

On Tuesday, the whaling ship Hvalur 9 — Whale 9 — took to the seas for a test run after being laid up for years in Reykjavik harbor.

Icelanders have been hunting whales since the days of the Vikings, but stopped commercial whaling in 1985, and scientific whaling in 1989, under the international moratorium on commercial hunts. 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, a total of 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.

In a statement, Iceland's fisheries ministry 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."

Asta Einarsdottir, a lawyer for Iceland's 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."

The government said the newly-hunted meat would be sold on the domestic market, although some could be exported should demand arise.

Environment group Greenpeace immediately condemned the decision, noting that fin whales are on the International Conservation Union's "red list" of endangered species.

"Iceland has no market for whale meat, but they do have a huge and far more valuable market for whale watching, " said Greenpeace oceans campaigner Frode Pleym.

"Instead of investing in a one-man campaign to rejuvenate an outdated, unnecessary industry, that can only damage the reputation of the country internationally, Iceland should be capitalizing on the value of a growing industry of watching and studying whales."

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

CountryWatch: Japan

Iceland's move is the latest sign that for a 1986 moratorium on whale hunting is breaking down. 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 whaling.

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