Images such as this one marking the start of the autumn whaling season could become common if Japan's push to limit protection of minkes wins support at a U.N. meeting on trade in endangered species in Bangkok next month.
International trade in the meat of the giant mammals might then become possible, dealing a blow to conservationists who argue that many whale species, including minkes, are in danger.
At the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) meeting from October 2 to 14, Japan will propose that some stocks of minke whales be shifted from a list of most-endangered animals, in which international trade is banned, to a less-endangered category, where trade would be possible.
If the Bangkok meeting approves the move, it will build pressure on the International Whaling Commission to drop its moratorium on the hunting of minkes and all whale species that can be sustainably hunted, a term some environmentalists dismiss.
Japan, a member of the commission, has been trying to end the 1986 ban on commercial whaling.
"There are so many robust whale stocks, such as minke whales, the sei whale, the Bryde's whale," said Masayuki Komatsu, one of Japan's IWC representatives. "Sperm whales are rampant," he added.
Many environmentalists oppose both hunts and trade, saying protection is still needed to pull many species back from the brink of extinction. Others say harpooning the giant mammals is simply too cruel.
"No whale stocks are robust," said Martin Norman, a Greenpeace spokesman in Oslo. "Unlike some species, the minke whale is not threatened with extinction any longer, but there's great uncertainty about the size of stocks."
Japan says it hunts whales for scientific research, but the meat often ends up on store shelves and in gourmet restaurants.
Research whaling takes place in two regions: the Antarctic, where this year Japan plans to take up to 440 minke, and the Northwest Pacific, where it plans to take around 220 minke, 50 Bryde's whales, 100 sei whales and 10 sperm whales.
Norway, which resumed commercial minke killing in 1993, and Iceland, which restarted whaling for research in 2003, would also welcome official sanction of trade from CITES and the commission.
Tokyo believes endangered whales should be protected but that others, like the minke, have been scientifically proven to be in no danger of dying out.
WHALE FOR SALE?
Japanese officials plan a resolution urging the IWC to complete new whaling rules that could amount to an end to the commercial whaling ban.
At a meeting this year, the IWC rejected a deadline to agree on the rules next year.
Pro-whaling officials say approval for either the CITES proposal or the commission resolution would put the ban under pressure and prove it is guided by political, rather than the environmental, factors.
"You cannot oppose both unless your reason is other than science," Jiro Morishita, an official at Japan's Fisheries Agency, told Reuters.
Minke whales are widely acknowledged as one of the more robust whale populations, numbering perhaps a million worldwide.
Japan's CITES proposal targets three stocks: one near Japan, one in the central North Atlantic and the other in the eastern North Atlantic - the last two of interest to Iceland and Norway.
But officials in Japan and Norway think there is slim chance of the CITES proposal passing with the required two-thirds majority in Bangkok.
Previous Japanese proposals have often been voted down. Norway also tried at least three times to shift the minke into a less-endangered category before breaking with CITES in 2001 and unilaterally deciding to resume exports of minke meat and products.
TRADING BALD EAGLES
Predictably, there are cries of unfairness.
Oslo has accused Washington of double standards by asking CITES to lift a ban on trade in the bald eagle, the national symbol of the United States, while opposing Japan's drive to downlist the minke.
Washington argues that the numbers of the birds have surged since the 1960s, thanks to strict protection.
"We notice that many of the proposals at CITES for downlisting come from countries opposed to downlisting whales even though the scientific evidence is much the same," Halverd Johansen, deputy director general at the Norwegian Fisheries Ministry, told Reuters.
"The arguments used in the bald eagle proposal by the United States are very similar to those used for minke whales. And like whales, there would be very little international trade."
In the end, even officials acknowledge that Japan's proposals are mainly symbolic, an attempt to put pressure on the IWC before next year's meeting, which Tokyo believes could be pivotal - and perhaps even decide its future participation in the IWC.
"Japan wants to be involved in the new whaling rules, but our domestic situation will not allow us to discuss this issue forever," Morishita said.