Iceland’s commercial whale hunt is set to begin, after the government granted a small minke quota on Monday.
Whalers had been seeking a quota of about 100, but ministers settled on 40, which they say is commercially viable.
The decision came after weeks of delay, reportedly because of disagreements within government.
Environmental groups said the decision would further damage the Icelandic economy which is already badly affected by the international debt crisis.
The decision was expected a month ago, and whalers had been asking for a swift decision so they could begin hunting.
Finally, the govenment gave the go-ahead on Monday morning, and whalers said they would launch as soon as possible.
“It all depends on the weather, but if the weather is good then we hunt tomorrow (Tuesday) morning,” said Gunnar Bergmann Jonsson, head of the minke whaling association.
The government insists its decision is commercial, based on the market for minke meat within Iceland.
“We issued… a minke quota which limits the catch to 40 animals, and that’s similar to the amount that was caught last year,” said Iceland’s whaling commissioner Stefan Asmundsson.
There is no quota for fin whales, another target of Icelandic vessels.
Mr Jonsson confirmed that meat from last year’s minke catch had been sold. But he told BBC News his members hoped eventually for a larger annual quota – nearer to the 100 they had requested this year.
“We caught 45 whales last year and sold it all, so if we can sell all the meat from 40 animals this time I believe we can get more quota, but we’ll see how it goes.”
This will be the third hunting season since Iceland resumed its commercial programme in 2006.
Its annual catch is much smaller than those of Norway and Japan, but its hunt is nevertheless controversial, partly because it had ceased operations and partly because in some peoples’ eyes the policy conflicts with the image Iceland often portrays as an unspoiled, ecologically conscious “green” nation.
“We strongly urge the Icelandic government to rethink this decision,” said Robbie Marsland of the International Fund for Animal Welfare (Ifaw).
“The resumption of commercial whaling could prove to be extremely damaging to the already fragile Icelandic economy and its international reputation.”
The economy is already struggling owing to large borrowing by its three major banks. Inflation is runing above 11%, and interest rates are up to 15%.
Mr Marsland suggested that the growing industry of whale-watching could be an important asset to Iceland in this difficult period.
“We encourage the government to act now to protect this multi-million-pound industry and its wider economic interests.”
The delay in announcing the minke quota has strengthened rumours that some government departments, notably the foreign ministry, shared some of Ifaw’s views.
But the decision remains in the gift of the fisheries ministry, which believes there is no ecological reason to cancel a hunt for 40 minkes when the population in the north Atlantic is believed by the International Whaling Commission (IWC) to number about 174,000.
“There can be no question that this is a sustainable activity,” said Mr Asmundsson.