Conservation Minister Chris Carter fully expected the aroma of sizzling whale meat as he arrived for this year's International Whaling Commission meeting in South Korea.
For anti-whaling nations gathering in the former whaling port of Ulsan, barbecued whale at a nearby market was but one, small, affront on the eve of a general assembly that looked set to be as bitter and rancorous as those of the past.
The yearly IWC meeting has become something of a verbal slugfest in recent years, Japan and its pro-whaling allies lining up against anti-whaling countries such as New Zealand, Australia and Britain, with each trying to wrest ultimate control of what has become a highly political organisation.
Founded in 1946 after whaling had driven some species to the brink of extinction, the IWC was set up by whaling nations (including New Zealand) to regulate hunting.
For that reason, countries who argued for whale conservation also joined up, determined to not only have their voices heard, but to stop whaling altogether.
After a decade of save-the-whales activism, the 1982 resolution that effectively imposed a ban on commercial hunting of whales beginning in 1986 was the conservationists' finest hour.
But Japan has continued to fight back, either through recruiting allies to join up and vote with it or by expanding its so-called "scientific" research programme where it kills a set number of whales each year.
It argues the eating of whale meat is a cherished tradition and any move to impose restrictions on that is "cultural imperialism".
This year, as the 60-odd member countries prepared for the crucial voting stage of the meeting, the first shots in the war of words that always accompanies the general assembly had already been fired by a Japanese Fisheries Agency official who called New Zealand and Australia's stand on whaling "fanatical".
Since 1987, a year after the moratorium on whaling came into effect, the organisation has doubled in size, from around 30 countries to more than 60. In the past six years, 14 countries have joined.
Japan may have arrived at this meeting with a whopping 82-member delegation but it only gets one vote. Increasingly, it has been trying to increase its voting power by encouraging small, developing nations to join and many believe that is done through a promise of aid.
Countries with no whaling tradition, and, in some cases no coastline, have become members of the IWC but the spotlight this year fell on the tiny - and broke - Pacific nation of Nauru. A new IWC member, it was expected to vote with the pro-whalers and put itself off-side with at least two of its Pacific neighbours, Niue and Tonga, both nurturing whale-watching businesses to lure tourists.
The tiny Caribbean nation of Dominica threw its vote behind Japan at Ulsan, denying it had anything to do with two multi-million-dollar fishing complexes it has just built.
But despite its efforts, Japan has not been able to dominate the IWC. The organisation remains more or less evenly divided between pro-whaling and anti-whaling nations - effectively a stalemate.
While a 75 per cent majority vote is needed to overturn the 1986 moratorium on whaling, a ban that prevents Japan from returning to commercial hunting of whales, a majority vote would swing things in favour of the pro-whaling camp in smaller, but crucial, ways. A majority vote would also give Japan a chance to settle old scores, such as disbanding the IWC's conservation committee.
It would also mean Japan could get a majority resolution endorsing its so-called scientific research, allowable under Article 8 of IWC rules which says any country can kill whales for scientific purposes, giving the programme a respectability it simply doesn't have now.
Marine scientists, including Professor Scott Baker of Auckland University, have reviewed Japanese reports from the lethal research and concluded it has little scientific merit.
But later this year, Japanese boats are likely to begin hunting an expanded quota under the programme with or without the blessing of the IWC.
Its minke whale quota will rise from around 400 a year to around 900, and, for the first time, it is adding fin and humpback whales to the list, intending to take between 40 and 50 of each by 2007/08.
The humpbacks hunted by Japanese boats in the Southern Ocean belong to a population of about 2000 that migrates between Antarctica and the tropics each year. Some of those pass Kaikoura on their way to Tonga and, together with the more commonly seen sperm whale, provide a key spectacle for tourists and visitors at Kaikoura.
Humpbacks are famous for their haunting song. With an estimated population of around 20,000, they are listed as vulnerable by world conservation organisations. The fin whale is also listed as vulnerable and is second in size only to the awesome blue whale, reaching 22m or more.
Fin whales are found in most of the world's oceans and, like the humpback, migrate between polar regions and the tropics. The population is thought to be between 50,000 and 100,000.
Oneof the smallest whale species, minkes, are more numerous with an estimated population of 800,000 worldwide. They are not listed as endangered and their high-quality tail meat reportedly sells in Tokyo for about $350 a kilogram.
But environmental groups, which gather outside the IWC meeting each year to lobby delegates, argue the whaling issue is not just about conservation but cruelty. They say it takes many minutes to kill such large animals and population counts are only best guesses.
Though Japan has increased its threats in recent years to walk away from the IWC, it is reluctant to do so. To turn its back on world opinion and restart a commercial hunt would damage its standing as a global citizen.
Unlike Norway, which has always refused to recognise the 1986 moratorium and which kills around 700 whales a year, Japan has stuck with the IWC hoping it will eventually overturn the moratorium while in the meantime pushing for smaller victories.
But anti-whaling groups and New Zealand and Australia are also becoming increasingly frustrated, calling for reform of the IWC or even its abolition. One anti-whaling group in Australia said the organisation was outdated and failed to protect whales through the loophole that allowed Japan to increase its "research" programme.
Australian Environment Minister Ian Campbell largely agreed, saying yesterday the IWC forum was not the right one to be debating whale conservation.
One of the reasons New Zealand Whaling Commissioner Sir Geoffrey Palmer was appointed to the position three years ago was his constitutional reform expertise. New Zealand had drafted a protocol for reform of the IWC, including the "basic mechanisms common to most other international organisations", Mr Carter said.
Those include a dispute resolution process and a compliance mechanism to make countries abide by the rules.
But any thoughts of trying to build support for reform were a pipe dream this year. Instead, anti-whaling countries were proposing to put up a resolution today condemning Japan's plans to expand its research programme but with no idea whether they had the votes and knowing Japan was within its rights to go ahead anyway.
The best the anti-whalers could hope for at this meeting was to hold the line on the moratorium, knowing Japan could not get enough votes to overturn it. Not this year, anyway.By Anne Beston