Norway's renascent industry may pave the way for other countries to join the slaughter, imperilling one of the environmental movement's greatest victories - the 1987 moratorium by the International Whaling Commission (IWC) on catching the huge marine mammals.
Only one real problem lies in the whalers' path - a 300-ton mountain of blubber, stored at minus -30C in a warehouse just north of the Arctic Circle. Norwegians do not eat blubber and can find no other use for it.
The stockpile is an embarrassment to Norway, particularly as it is about to have another 100 tons from this season's catch.
The Japanese eat blubber, and would pay very high prices for it. The whalers would love to export it there, but the Norwegian government bans international trade because of the likely world reaction.
Norwegian government ministers are, however, looking into ways of dropping the trade ban. Jan Henry Olsen, the Fisheries Minister, said: "Something is happening. It is moving in favour of us."
Norway is a member of the IWC, which holds its annual meeting in Aberdeen at the end of the month. The Norwegian ambition is to convert the anti- whaling majority of nations within the IWC to drop their opposition - which is why its government spent thousands of pound last week flying a party of British journalists, including me, to the Lofoten Islands, a remote but prosperous region above the Arctic Circle which is the heart of the nation's industry.
Norway has played a long, clever game to preserve its relict industry, and has been much more successful in doing so than Japan and Iceland, which also want an end to the moratorium.
Norway filed an official objection to the ban within six months of it coming into force, which gave it the legal right to ignore it. But it also bowed to international pressure and ceased commercial whaling in 1987 pending research into the state of the minke whale population in the north-east Atlantic.
The hunt resumed in 1993, with a quota of 296 minke whales. This year's quota has risen to 425, and that number has almost been caught already since the opening of the season in last month's calm weather.
An international minke sighting survey last year produced an estimate for the north-east Atlantic of around 110,000 whales - much higher than the previous estimate of about 70,000. Norway's fisheries ministry says it could set a quota of 600 without posing the slightest threat to the population, but wants to avoid sudden expansion and chaos in the whalemeat market.
The industry is small, with a total turnover of only a few million pounds a year, but it carries an immense political charge on the international scene. Only 31 fishing boats are licensed to catch whales this summer, taking around 14 each. Each has a government inspector on board.
Minke, which weigh about eight ton each, are the smallest of the great whales. Whalers shoot them with a small harpoon. According to the Norwegian government, in the 1994 season just under 30 per cent died instantly and the average survival time after impact was three minutes. They are butchered on board; the offal and skeleton are thrown over the side, with blubber and meat kept on ice. This year the whalers earn nearly pounds 3 a kilogram for the meat, a little less than last year, but in the shops it costs at least four times that.
Truls Soloy, a skipper with a quota of 10 whales, said: "It's more exciting than fishing. We've achieved what we hoped for and our fight to resume whaling has always been based on serious arguments."
His greatest hope is for an international trade in whale products. Foreigners who think whaling is barbaric are seen as ignorant, interfering or misinformed. "They don't understand what we are doing," he said.Reuse content