After an 11-year hiatus, Japan's government announced earlier today [Wednesday] that it intends to resume imports of Norwegian minke whale meat in the next few months.

The plan is in defiance of an international moratorium on commercial trade in whale products, and has elicited further criticism from conservationists already angered by Tokyo's announcement less than a week ago that its research whaling programme is to be expanded to include sei whales. Some environmental groups say the sei whales face extinction, but under a plan submitted to the International Whaling Commission (IWC), Japan's research fleet in the North Pacific will catch 50 this year, in addition to 150 minke whales, 50 Bryde's whales and ten sperm whales.

Conservation groups worldwide have expressed concern that the move to import up to a hundred tons of minke whale meat from Norway is the most aggressive move to date to revive the international trade. Japan has conducted what it calls scientific research whaling since 1987, but the meat is viewed as a delicacy in the country and commands a high price.

Last month, Norway raised its whaling quota for 2002, revealing it is ready to restart exports to Japan, and some observers said that imports could begin as soon as April of this year.

Masayuki Komatsu, a counsellor for the Fisheries Agency said: "I can't say exactly when imports would resume."

He explained that "it depends on agreement on a number of conditions" such as the establishment of systems to track DNA and prevent smuggling, and to test the meat to ensure it's safe for consumption. Norwegian whale blubber, say some Japanese consumer groups, contains around 7.6 times the amount of toxic polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) permitted by the Japanese government.

Fred O'Regan, president of the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) said: "This is absolutely outrageous and must be stopped.

"Japan and Norway have obviously decided to go their own way, and the rest of the international community be damned. That Japan would undertake this prohibited trade on the eve of hosting an IWC meeting is incredible. It's pure Kabuki theatre.''

The planned annual meeting of the International Whaling Commission (IWC) is due to take place in the southwestern Japanese city of Shimonoseki in May.

"These audacious decisions are a slap in the face of the international community and decades of good faith efforts to protect and conserve the great whales for future generations," O'Regan added.

"It is time for Norway and Japan to join the rest of the civilised world and abandon plans to return to industrial whaling and trade in whale meat."