Norway, which faces international opprobrium for hunting the whales, is highly satisfied with the new estimate, formally unveiled yesterday as the commission began its week-long annual meeting in Aberdeen.
"We're extremely happy with what the IWC's scientific committee have decided," Norway's commissioner, Kare Bryn, said. "The stock is large and increasing."
But the many environmental and animal rights organisations gathered in Aberdeen to lobby IWC delegates are doing their best to cast doubt on the estimate. Greenpeace and the Worldwide Fund for Nature (WWF) both pointed out that the majority of whale spotters on the boats carrying out the survey were in fact Norwegian whalers.
Greenpeace campaigner Jerry Leape said: "They have an incentive to inflate the numbers and distort the data."
Following a survey using boats at sea last year, the committee last week agreed that an estimate of 118,000 minkes in the north-east Atlantic could be justified, with upper and lower limits of 90,000 and 135,000. The fish- and plankton-eating minke, smallest of the great whales, was the last to be exploited by the now vanished deep-sea whaling fleets.
The previous population estimate, based on surveys in the late Eighties, was for a population of 70,000. Norway did the majority of the work in preparing the new estimate, including funding the survey and the extensive computer programming of the data afterwards, but it can now claim that the international community accepts the number as scientists from several other countries, including Britain, were involved in checking and approving procedure.
Lars Walloe, a senior Norwegian government scientist on his country's delegation, said: "I guess this is the best calculation ever of whale numbers anywhere."
Norway's objection to the IWC's 1987 moratorium on all commercial whaling gave it a legal right to continue the practice of catching its local whales using coastal fishing boats armed with harpoons. The government stopped this for a few years at the end of the Eighties because of international condemnation, but allowed the annual whaling to resume in 1993, allocating tightly controlled quotas to fishermen.
This year's total is quoted at 425 minkes, which has just been caught. It was the highest since Norway resumed whaling but nowhere near the 1,800 a year it was taking two decades ago.
These days Norway sets is quotas according to a procedure drawn up by the IWC which should ensure that there can never be any threat of serious population decline. But even with this procedure, Norwegian scientists believe higher quotas than 425 can be set.
Japan, the only other nation still whaling on a large scale, is also taking an increasing number of the great mammals. It harpoons minke whales from the population around the Antarctic of about 750,000, taking some 400 a year.
But Japan, unlike Norway, signed up to the 1987 moratorium on commercial whaling which was regarded as one of the global environmental movement's greatest victories. Japan's way of getting around the ban is to arrange its catch as a programme of scientific research.
The situation is dismaying environmentalists, who see whaling making a slow comeback with individual countries setting the rules rather than the IWC, which was set up to do so.
But Norway and Japan argue that in a rational world there can be no ban on harvesting a natural resource, providing it is done sustainably. Whale numbers are making a recovery, and minkes are certainly at a level that can be exploited.
The grey whale, too, faces the harpoon - if seven members of the Makah Indian tribe of Washington State are successful in Aberdeen, where they have joined their government's delegation to press for a quota of five grey whales a year. Two other members of the tribe, however, have flown to the whaling commission meeting - courtesy of US animal welfare organisations - to lobby against the proposed hunt.Reuse content