Ahead of a meeting of the International Whaling Commission (IWC), environmentalists warn that global trade in whale meat is on the rise. Europe is soon to take the lead in the hunt, over Japan.
Whaling is technically outlawed, but still common practice
Starting Monday, the IWC will gather on the Portuguese island of Madeira for five days, looking to establish concrete rules on whale hunting. Environmentalists say trade in whale meat is increasing again, despite being illegal in most of the world.
Commercial whale hunting is officially permitted in Iceland and Norway. Japan also allows whaling for scientific purposes - the country catches roughly 1,000 of the giants of the deep each year. However, Japanese whale meat not needed in the laboratory often ends up on restaurant menus instead.
Japan has said it wants to reduce the scale of its scientific whaling, in exchange for rights to commercial whale hunting near its coastline.
"That would amount to lifting the commercial whaling ban that has been in force since 1986," says Sandra Altherr of the organization Pro Wildlife.
The three whaling nations have been pushing for an end to the international ban on trade in whale meat. The industry is currently outlawed under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES).
Greenpeace members often put their lives on the line to stop whaling vessels
Norway and Iceland reserved their right to resume hunting in this 1986 moratorium.
Since then both countries have taken up the trade again, while Japan circumvented the regulation by reintroducing what it calls its "scientific whaling program."
Denmark is also hoping for a special whaling dispensation, trying to convince the EU to permit Greenland to hunt 50 humpback whales over five years for domestic consumption. Critics say that Denmark really wants to reintroduce commercial whaling off its own shores, even though there is already plenty of whale meat available there.
The three nations that have rejected the moratorium are free to trade small quantities of meat amongst themselves. After a gap of a few decades, Japan started importing whale meat in 2008. Currently Japan brings in a few tons from Iceland, and under 10 tons from Norway.
Whalers in Scandinavia and Japan say they're just like any other fishermen
The Nordic nations want to increase these amounts. The Norwegian firm Lofothval has obtained export licenses for 47 tons of whale meat. Greenpeace has said this is a sign of desperation.
"That shows the despair of the whaling industry that can't sell its products in Norway and so is trying to get rid of them abroad at any price," says Truls Gulowsen, the head of Greenpeace in Scandinavia.
"The Japanese eat less and less whale meat and their warehouses are already full of products that the local hunters can't get rid of."
Industry professionals see the matter very differently. For them the Japanese market is a promising, large one, which offers higher prices for whale meat.
"Japan, that's more than 120 million inhabitants," said Rune Froevik of Lofothval, admitting that many there were not accustomed to eating whale meat. "But they are receptive, because a large part of their diet comes from the sea."
Also, the Japanese eat the fat of the whale, which Norwegians discard as a waste product.
"Each catch becomes more profitable because a small Minke whale contains 1.5 tons of meat and 500 kilos of blubber," said Froevik.
Groups in Japan have campaigned for their "seafood culture"
However, they also maintain the ban on international whale hunting is no longer necessary.
"The experts, including those abroad, agree that the species we are hunting are not under threat," said Oeystein Stoerkersen - the head of Norway's Directorate for Nature Management. "But certain decision-makers in the United States, Britain, Germany and France are trying to scrounge votes by pandering to ill-informed public opinion."
Those in favor of whaling want to set up a "safe haven" for whales in the South Atlantic, whilst relaxing the laws for much of the rest of the world. However, environmentalists have dismissed these ideas as farcical, saying the point of the moratorium was to make every ocean a safe refuge for whales.
According to the International Whaling Commission's scientific committee, the North Atlantic has 30,000 fin whales and 174,000 Minke whales. Norway argues that these numbers are healthy enough to justify hunting around 1,000 of the mammalian sea creatures each year.
The 61st annual IWC meeting is another bid to agree on definitive rules for global whale hunting, but opinions remain completely polarized going into the event.
Editor: Kateri Jochum