Iceland is likely to approve the commercial hunting of whales for this summer, the BBC has learned.
Its whaling industry is asking for a quota of about 100 minke whales and a number of fin whales too.
A government official confirmed it is “likely” that quotas will be issued soon, with the season starting in May.
Iceland resumed commercial whaling in 2006, but said last year that quotas would only be issued if there was a demand for the meat.
This was interpreted in some quarters as spelling an end to the Icelandic hunt; but the minke whaling industry says it has sold all the meat from the last two years’ catch, which shows there is an appetite for whale products.
“We’re hoping for a quota for minke – we’ve been talking about taking 100 whales,” the head of Iceland’s minke whaling association, Gunnar Bergmann Jonsson, told BBC News.
“We caught 45 last summer, and we’ve sold it all. The minister says he’s basing his decision on whether there’s a market, so we hope he would give us a quota.”
Stefan Asmundsson, a senior official in Iceland’s fisheries ministry and its commissioner to the International Whaling Commission (IWC), confirmed that the hunt was likely to go ahead.
“We are not expecting any big quotas, but we are likely to see in the relatively near future some quotas for minke whales.
“The most important factor is to ensure the quotas are within sustainable limits.”
The IWC estimates there are about 175,000 minke whales in the North Atlantic, and Icelandic scientists say a quota of 100 easily fits within the definition of “sustainable”.
In 2006, Iceland also issued a quota for fin whales, a species currently categorised as Endangered.
The fin whaling company, Hvalur hf, is hoping that it will receive a quota again, perhaps as large as 150 whales.
“There are 25,000 fin whales in the area where we hunt,” said the owner of Hvalur, Kristjan Loftsson.
“If a farmer had 25,000 cattle in his field, I don’t think he would agree to a zero take. If this (150 whales) is not sustainable, I don’t know what is.”
Mr Asmundsson did not rule out issuing a fin quota, although 150 appears unlikely. There is a very small domestic market for fin meat, and most of the 2006 catch is still in cold storage.
Hvalur is hoping eventually to set up an export trade to Japan.
Environmental groups greeted the news with dismay.
“It’s meaningless, it’s useless, it’s futile, it’s against the spirit of the whaling regime that Iceland says it wants internationally,” said Arni Finnsson of the Iceland Nature Conservation Association (Inca).
“There is little domestic market, the export route to Japan is closed; is Iceland just trying to make a point?”
His feelings were echoed by Robbie Marsland, head of the UK office of the International Fund for Animal Welfare (Ifaw).
“We feel this would be an extremely damaging step for Iceland’s international reputation, for its tourism and its wider economy,” he said.
Mr Marsland was speaking from Iceland where Ifaw is holding a conference on whale-watching, which it argues is an ethically and economically superior way of using cetaceans.
Internationally, an Icelandic decision to continue its commercial hunt would offer renewed support for Japan’s position, which maintains that whales can and should be regarded like any other living marine resource, and harvested sustainably.
Fisheries minister Einar Gudfinnsson is likely to make the final announcement within a month.