THE dire state of Japan's whaling industry has been highlighted in a Greenpeace analysis showing the whalers sell so little whale meat they are almost wholly dependent on taxpayer help.
The industry has been able to reach deep into government subsidy schemes to prop up its fortunes and set up the key factory ship Nisshin Maru to run for another decade, the analysis says.
And with the return to power of the Liberal Democratic Party leader, Shinzo Abe, as next prime minister of Japan, observers see a strengthened pro-whaling lobby in Tokyo.
Already about a month from departing for its Antarctic season, Nisshin Maru returned to port in Innoshima on Thursday after four hours at sea, Greenpeace said
The ship underwent a partial refit that will increase its fuel efficiency, cut the crew numbers and set up a new processing line to produce ''retail-sized'' 1 kilogram packages of whale meat, instead of 15kg wholesale packs.
Funding for the refit was obtained by the Institute of Cetacean Research (ICR) under the Profitable Fisheries Support Project, a Fisheries Agency of Japan program designed to help fishers modernise.
In return, the ICR is said to have undertaken to bring home about 2400 tonnes of whale meat each year - or about 300 Antarctic minke whales, and 200 from the North Pacific.
Having received nearly $30 million from a government tsunami relief fund last year, mainly to pay debt, the whaling industry is said to have secured government guarantees to cover 90 per cent of its operating losses for the next three years.
''The existing subsidies, plus the deficit guarantee and modernisation funds for the Nisshin Maru mean the industry has effectively been nationalised,'' Greenpeace said.
But in recent years, despite much lower catches under pressure from conservation group Sea Shepherd, the frozen whale meat stockpile remained little changed at about 5000 tonnes, or two years' worth of consumption.
The ICR recently announced it would try to increase sales by direct-selling to restaurants and consumers, targeting middle-aged and elderly ''nostalgic'' whale meat eaters.
The strongly pro-whaling LDP notched a sweeping victory at last weekend's Japanese national election. The International Fund for Animal Welfare global whales campaigner, Patrick Ramage, said Mr Abe's own electoral base was the whalers' port of Shimonoseki.