A return to commercial whaling and the type of butchery not seen for the better part of a century will move closer this week with Japan expected to secure enough support at the annual meeting of the International Whaling Commission to ensure a pro-whaling majority for the first time in 20 years.

Such an alliance now threatens to defeat landmark conservation measures agreed last year to protect the 300,000 whales accidentally caught and killed by fishermen each year. It coincides with a warning today from the Environment Investigation Agency that the outlook for whales is ‘increasingly bleak’ because of ocean pollution.

Four years ago, only nine of the 55 member countries backed Japan. Support increased to 15 in 2002 and then 21 last year. Experts predict 27 countries will offer support at the IWC meeting in Sorrento, Italy, which opens tomorrow – though to overturn the whaling ban would require a three- quarters majority.

‘For the first time in a couple of decades there could be a pro-whaling majority though it is highly unlikely that they will be able to overturn the moratorium this time around,’ said Claire Doole of the World Wildlife Fund.