Iceland's return to whaling has angered environmentalists and raised fears for the country's growing tourist industry.

"We are out," said Gunnar Johannsson, captain of the Sigurbjorg, on Sunday. His is one of three vessels commissioned by the Icelandic Marine Research Institute to catch minke whales, on their way after strong winds prevented them from sailing on Saturday.

"We are planning to begin whaling," he said.

Environmental groups and foreign governments have criticized Iceland's decision to resume whaling. With seven of the 13 great whale species endangered, the International Whaling Commission has outlawed commercial hunting of the world's largest mammal since 1986.

Iceland issued permits on Friday for three whaling boats to catch 38 minke whales for what it describes as scientific purposes.

The government says the cull is needed to study the stomach contents of the mammals to measure their effect on fish stocks such as cod, which are vital to the national economy.

Iceland says it must control whales to protect fish stocks and protect the livelihood of the country's fishermen. An estimated 43,000 minke whales are believed to live in its waters, eating two million tons of fish and krill every year.

Whale meat

But the decision has raised fears of a backlash against the tiny North Atlantic country's exports and growing tourist industry, with whale-watching a major attraction despite whale meat featuring on menus in Reykjavik restaurants.

"We are convinced that whales are not responsible for a decline in fish numbers, but what we do know is that whales will suffer."

RSPCA marine scientist Laila Sadler

Erna Hauksdottir, head of the travel industry lobby, said, "History shows us discussion of whaling often leads to protests outside our offices abroad."

However, polls show 75% of Iceland's 290,000 people support the return to whaling.

Johannsson said the first of the three vessels left port just after midnight. He said his boat with four experienced whalers and six scientists on board could be back with its first catch within three or four days. The boat can catch several minke whales during one trip.

"I have not been whaling for 18 years," said Johannsson, a professional whaler since 1971. "We are happy to start again."

Greenpeace en route

Rainbow Warrior, the vessel of environmental campaign group Greenpeace, currently in the South Atlantic, has set course for Iceland and is expected to arrive toward the end of August.

Greenpeace fears the permits could be a first step toward the resumption of commercial whaling. A spokesman said Greenpeace planned "no physical action" against the whalers.

"We will try to engage in dialogue with the local population to generate pressure on the Icelandic government from inside the country," Greenpeace spokesman Frode Pleym told Reuters by telephone from Norway.

In 1985, activists sank two whaling boats in Reykjavik harbour.

Boycott

In Britain, the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA) called on consumers to think twice before buying fish from Iceland.

"We are convinced that whales are not responsible for a decline in fish numbers, but what we do know is that whales will suffer," said RSPCA marine scientist Laila Sadler.

Iceland ceased whaling in 1989 under international pressure, but said this year it will catch the minke whales for scientific purposes as part of a plan to take 100 of the relatively numerous minke whales, 100 endangered fin whales and 50 sei whales, also under threat, annually.

Minkes are much smaller than fins and seis, reaching just 10 yards in length. With black skin and white underbellies they are predators, feeding on fish as well as krill.

Norway defies the ban and Japan uses a loophole for scientific catches. Indigenous people in Greenland, Siberia and the state of Alaska are allowed to continue traditional "subsistence" whaling.