The 380-yen ($3.50) slice of fried minke whale in a bun went
on sale on Thursday at Lucky Pierrot, a restaurant chain in the port city of Hakodate on Japan's northernmost island of Hokkaido.

"We have decided to add a whale burger to our menu due to strong demand from our customers and feel very thankful to the whales for allowing us to make the burgers," said Lucky Pierrot manager Miku Oh.

"The taste and texture are somewhere between beef and fish," she said, adding: "People in Hakodate have a long history of eating whale, so customers are looking forward to trying it."

But customers wanting to try it better get there fast, the chain is currently producing only 200 burgers a day spread out over its 10 outlets.

Cultural

Japan's plan to expand its scientific whale hunt to an annual catch of 900 minke whales were dealt a blow on Wednesday when the International Whaling Commission (IWC) narrowly passed a resolution at a meeting in South Korea urging it to instead cut back on its catch in the Pacific Ocean.

Japan currently hunts minkes
and wants to hunt fin whales too

Japan, which calls anti-whaling campaigners disrespectful of its culture, kills whales as research under a clause in a 1986
moratorium.

Tokyo is campaigning for a full-scale return to commercial catches, saying whale stocks have recovered sufficiently during the 19-year ban.

It also plans to double its hunt of minke whales and to resume killing endangered fin whales and vulnerable humpbacks, despite fierce opposition by an alliance led by Australia.

Lucky Pierrot's Oh said the restaurant was aware of global criticism over Japan's efforts to expand research whale hunting, but argued that eating whale meat was part of the country's traditional food and should be treated with respect.

"We have a long tradition of eating whale meat as a port in Hakodate used to be a major whaling hub," she said.

"We are not going out to catch whales because we want to eat them, we are just using up meat from whales that have been killed for experiments," she added.

Scientific

The terms of the 1986 ban state that any whale products harvested in the scientific programme should as far as practical find their way to market.

"We are not going out to catch whales because we want to eat them, we are just using up meat from whales that have been killed for experiments"

Miku Oh, manager of Lucky Pierrot whale burger-selling chain

But conservationists insist the so-called research programme is devoid of scientific justification and part of Japan's campaign to dump the 1986 ban and resume full-scale commercial catches.

"We've always claimed that it was just a cover for commercial
whaling," said Susan Lieberman, director of the WWF conservation group's species programme.

"It's clearly a desire to have more meat on the market in Japan," she said.

Too much

Conservationists also argue that Japan already has too much whale meat for demand. The Environmental Investigation Agency, a non-governmental conservation group, estimates that Japan's desired increased cull would triple the supply.

"We've always claimed that it (whaling for 'research') was just a cover for commercial
whaling"

Susan Lieberman, director of WWF species programme

Lieberman disputed the Japanese argument that there was demand for the product.

"There's a glut on the market now, they can't sell it all," she
said.

"They're giving it away free to schools to try to get schoolchildren to try to like whale burgers, because they're not interested in whale meat any more."

Whale meat was a staple of school lunches in Japan before a
moratorium on whaling was introduced in 1986. Earlier this year, most schools in Wakayama, Japan's western whaling heartland, resumed whale lunches which had gone off the menu amid global anti-whaling campaigns. 

Anti-whaling recruitment

Meanwhile, New Zealand Conservation Minister Chris Carter said on Thursday that the country was to launch a recruitment drive to shore up the slender majority of anti-whaling countries at the International Whaling Commission.

The IWC voted down Japan's push
to resume commercial catches

The commission this week voted down a number of Japanese proposals to dump the 19-year ban and resume full scale commercial catches.

But the conservationists' slender majority has led to fears that the commission could soon tilt in favour of whaling nations for the first time in more than 20 years.

"At the moment it is locked into two competing camps who are not listening to each other. We need to move on," Carter said.

But does whale meat even taste good?

A worker at one of the restaurants said: "We get a lot of tourists here and even children, who had never eaten it before, said it was good. The grown-ups said the flavour made them nostalgic."