By Richard Black
Environment correspondent, BBC news website
Number of fin whales may be increasing, though it remains endangered
Japan appears likely to approve the importation of a consignment of whalemeat from Iceland and Norway.
A senior official from Japan's Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry told BBC News that an import licence has been granted.
The consignment, of about 65 tonnes, was sent to Japan in June but has been held in customs since its arrival.
The whalemeat trade is banned under UN rules but the three countries involved hold opt-outs, making it legal.
As well as establishing the legality of the consignment, Japanese authorities have also been assessing the meat on health and safety grounds, and it is believed that this process has not quite finished.
The Icelandic company which hunted and exported most of the meat, Hvalur hf, anticipates receiving final clearance within weeks.
Norwegian and Icelandic whalers see access to the Japanese market as key to expanding and maintaining their businesses.
The international whalemeat trade is banned under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), but Norway, Iceland and Japan have all registered reservations to exempt themselves, as the treaty permits.
"It's a legal import and a legal export, and in future might give access to a market that's really big for both Norwegian and Icelandic whalers," said Laila Jusnes from the High North Alliance, which represents whalers, sealers and fishermen around the Arctic.
In response to the contention that the Japanese market is shrinking, as environment groups maintain, she said: "We don't know just how big the market is before we start, but I'm sure it can be re-developed."
Whaling companies promote eating of whalemeat in Japan
The potential importance of the export trade is precisely the reason why anti-whaling organisations are keen that it does not resume.
"Japan is sticking two fingers up at the International Whaling Commission (IWC) and at CITES," said Claire Bass, marine mammal programme manager with the World Society for the Protection of Animals (WSPA).
IWC members are currently engaged in discussions aiming to find a "compromise package" of reforms before the organisation's next annual meeting in June 2009.
"It really shows that none of the whaling nations have any commitment to the process on the IWC's future, nor any intention to honour obligations under CITES, (where) reservations to trade banned species are fairly frowned upon," said Ms Bass.
"Clearly Iceland has no market for this meat, but neither has Japan - they currently have about 2,000 tonnes in cold storage, so it's hard to imagine why they're importing any more."
The consignment consists of about 60 tonnes of fin whale meat from Hvalur hf, and about five tonnes of minke meat exported by the Norwegian company Myklebust Trading.
The fin whale hunt is especially controversial as it is listed internationally as an endangered species, although the north Atlantic population is believed to number about 30,000 and may be increasing, according to the latest Red List of Threatened Species.