For 20 years the world's whales have mostly been left alone by man. Norway, Iceland and Japan, together with some indigenous groups, have been allowed to hunt a few thousand each year on the basis of scientific research, but the global free-for-all that decimated populations in all oceans for more than 100 years ended in 1986 on a wave of revulsion at the way they were killed and concern that stocks would never recover.
That might be about to change. About 35 pro-whaling countries, some of which have no coastline or history of whaling, are expected to gain control of the 66-member International Whaling Commission (IWC), the body which governs the industry.
In a triumph of intensive lobbying led by Japan, they are likely to dismantle the laws that protect whales and prepare the way for the eventual full resumption of commercial whaling.
To the horror of more than 150 large conservation organizations worldwide, the anti-whaling countries led by Britain, New Zealand, Australia and the US, say there is little that can now be done diplomatically to prevent the takeover by pro-whalers at the IWC meeting in St Kitts later this month.
"On paper they certainly now have a majority. I do not think the anti-whalers can hold the line," said Leah Garces, campaigns director of the World Society for the Protection of Animals, on behalf of anti-whaling groups worldwide.
"We could now go back to the 1970s when whales were unprotected throughout the world. This is critical," she said.
"The best we now think is possible is a tie in St Kitts. It looks very serious. We think it will be bloody," said a British official close to the talks.
It has emerged that following a narrow defeat last year at the IWC's meeting in South Korea, Japan went to remarkable lengths to avoid defeat in St Kitts. Last month it convened a secret meeting in Tokyo of pro-whaling countries, including Norway, to prepare tactics and to ensure that many small countries, which traditionally hesitate to go to IWC meetings because of the cost, travel this year to the Caribbean.
Japan is also known to have increased aid to countries such as Belize, Mali, Togo, Gambia and others which have joined the IWC recently but who have so far not voted.
Earlier this year it pledged more than US$1 million to the Pacific island of Tuvalu, a pro-whaling IWC member, and has reached similar deals with Nauru and Kiribati and other desperately poor countries in the Pacific. Last week it is believed to have offered a large aid package to other Pacific countries. It has also invited the heads of state of seven African countries and eight Caribbean and central American countries to visit Tokyo in the last year. All are expected to vote with Japan at St Kitts.
At least US$300 million was given last year to Antigua, Dominica, Grenada, Panama, St Lucia, St Vincent and the Grenadines, and St Kitts and Nevis. Much of the aid has been ostensibly to develop their fishing industries, but Japan traditionally stresses that whales are responsible for low fish catches.
A Japanese government official, who asked not to be named, denied that Tokyo had negotiated aid packages at the meeting last month but admitted there had been discussions of "logistics," such as how to ensure that poorer pro-whaling countries showed up in St Kitts.
British diplomats said last night that they feared they had lost the battle to secure more anti-whaling votes.