Battle lines are drawn for next week's meeting of the International Whaling Commission here in South Korea. The International Whaling Commission has regulated global whaling since it was established after World War II.
For the first time in decades, Japan may be on the verge of successfully tilting the balance in the annual clash between pro and anti-whaling factions.
Japan says it wants to at least double the number of whales it catches each year for what it calls "scientific study" of the mammals. The meat from the 440 whales Japan currently takes annually is sold and eaten commercially, whale meat being considered a delicacy in Japan.
Nicola Beynon, with the Australia-based Humane Society International, dismisses Japan's contention that science is behind its whaling catch.
"It is a sham. It has no scientific credibility whatsoever," she said.
Ms. Beynon says the hunting of whales, usually by harpoon, is inhumane because it can take an hour for the whales to die. She says the humpback whales that Japan plans to hunt in greater numbers migrate from Antarctica up the coasts of Australia every winter.
"So, Australians are very concerned that the whales that they delight in whale watching every winter, that some of those whales might not be coming back because they are going to fall victim to the Japanese harpoon," she added.
Australia's whale-watching tourism industry brings in tens of millions of dollars each year.
Possibly the most divisive issue at this year's IWC meeting is a proposal called the Revised Management Scheme (RMS). It would set whale hunt limits higher for species estimated to be more abundant.
Dr. Nick Gales, an Australian delegate on the IWC's scientific committee, says the Revised Management Scheme would also limit the IWC's activities, and pave the way for commercial whaling.
"It would tend to exclude a lot of the conservation-centered work and would probably accelerate the move towards a resumption of whaling," he said.
The pro-whaling nations, Japan, Norway, and Iceland, support the RMS. So does South Korea's Coalition for Whaling Resumption. Byon Chang-myong is the coalition's director.
Mr. Byon says whale meat has historically played an important role in North Asian food supplies, as recently as the 1950s.
Whaling is banned in South Korea, but the meat from whales caught accidentally as part of other fishing is allowed to be sold.
Japan has used extensive economic and political resources in an aggressive effort to win allies for this year's vote. At the same time, Australia's Environment Minister Ian Campbell has been intensely lobbying IWC members against an increase in whaling. He wants IWC members to support Australian proposals for whale safety zones.
"I am hoping that they will embrace this broader vision of a Pacific community that will ultimately become a whale sanctuary and will ultimately be seen by the developed world as an incredibly important part of the planet's ecology," he said.
Experts say that as the days before the IWC meeting tick away, the vote could go either way, and they refuse to make a prediction.
If the vote goes against it, Japan may take more direct action. It has threatened to pull out of the International Whaling Commission altogether and work with like-minded nations to resume commercial whaling.