Norway’s whaling fleet will catch only half of its quota this season. The government set a quota of 1052 minke whales, but so far only 444 have been landed.
Industry spokesmen predict the final tally for the April to August season will be about 500, and say bad weather earlier in the year prevented hunting.
Western environmental groups say the industry is in crisis, with stores full of unsold meat and a lack of demand from the Norwegian public.
“Norway has some real headaches this summer,” said Sue Fisher from the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society (WDCS).
“It dramatically increased its whaling quota this year to make a political statement, but that is backfiring now.
“Middlemen can’t sell the meat already caught and have run out of storage space.” The government increased its quota to 1052 whales from 797 last year.
Commercial whaling is banned globally, but Norway lodged a formal objection when the moratorium was established 20 years ago and continues its commercial hunt, based around the Lofoten Islands in the country’s north-west.
Norwegian sources paint a different picture of the reasons for the low catch, which has seen parts of the fleet suspend operations in recent weeks.
“It’s been very slow this year, that’s for sure,” said Rune Frovik, secretary of the High North Alliance which represents whalers, fishermen and sealers in northern countries.
“One reason is the bad weather – it’s been rainy and windy and cold, and this June we had less sunshine than in any June for many years,” he told the BBC News website. “And then there hasn’t been much capelin along the coast – this is a favoured prey for minke, so when that fish is not there the minkes go elsewhere.”
The other factor, he said, is holidays, with many whalers and people involved in the processing industry taking several weeks off in July and August.
Hermod Larsen, regional director of the Norwegian Raw Fish Organisation for the Lofoten area, agreed that bad weather in May and June was a key factor.
“As the season goes on, the quality of the whalemeat goes down,” he told the BBC News website.
“From mid-summer on they eat a lot of herring and other fish, they are eating and eating and getting fatter and fatter, and the fat is not good for the meat.
“Usually people start eating whale in May, they grill it and eat it; but if you don’t have meat in May it’s not possible to sell the meat you do have in July.”
His organisation, which represents processing companies, has stopped buying whalemeat. Some whalers process their own meat, and according to Mr Frovik, this activity continues.
“Also, it appears that the three main processing plants wish to resume processing and buying whale meat after the holiday, more exactly on Monday 7th August,” he said.
Mr Frovik and Mr Larsen both expect the final catch to be in the region of 500 whales.
Norway is one of three countries to hunt the “great whales”; the others are Japan and Iceland, which claim their catches are for “scientific research”.
In June these pro-whaling nations saw a motion passed at the International Whaling Commission (IWC) annual meeting calling for the eventual resumption of commercial hunting – the first pro-whaling resolution in 20 years.
Concerned by such moves, anti-whaling nations along with conservation and animal rights groups are stepping up pressure to have all whaling stopped.
Earlier this year a group of 12 countries sent a letter of diplomatic protest to Norway, while a similar letter to Japan was supported by 17 nations.
Communities in Norway, Japan and Iceland accuse these countries of trying to impose their own cultural values on societies which do not view whales as special creatures.
But conservation groups say that whaling is intrinsically cruel, stocks are too low for hunting to be sustainable, and demand for whalemeat is declining.