A Greenpeace boat tries to prevent whaling ship the Nisshin Maru refuelling in the Southern Ocean, 2008

In this day and age, commercial whaling is out-of-date and should be out-of-the-question. Sadly it isn’t, but maybe the news that the Japanese whaling fleet might be cutting short its stay in the Southern ocean is cause for some optimism.

It’s an odd state of affairs we find ourselves in, and not one that makes a whole lot of sense when you start to think about it. On the one hand there is a global ban on commercial whaling. Some whale species are listed as endangered. We have bans on the international trade of endangered species. Many areas of our seas are recognised internationally as whale sanctuaries.

Then on the other hand we have endangered species hunted in sanctuaries and their meat sold on the market in Japan.

It makes a mockery of international agreements and conservation efforts, and it sucks up a huge amount of resources. Internationally, the annual fight and brouhaha over commercial whaling successfully stops any meaningful progress on the conservation of other whales, dolphins and porpoises. And in Japan itself, vast amounts of taxpayers money are spent, directly and indirectly, to defend and support a whaling programme that its tax-paying population neither need nor want.

Increasingly however, the cracks are starting to show. Last year the Japanese whaling fleet set sail late, and with less ships. They also had less capacity because they could no longer depend on a supply ship to take whale meat home. Back then, we predicted that this was likely to mean coming home earlier too. It’s part of an ongoing pattern of an industry in decline.

Japan's whale meat mountain is at its highest level. Almost 6,000 tonnes (which might be better visualised as about 1,000 minke whales) is sitting unwanted in storage. It shows the nonsense of assuming there's a thriving demand for whale meat, especially by those in Iceland who think there’s a future in exporting some endangered fin whale meat there on a regular basis.

At-sea confrontations, global public outrage, political embarrassment, media speculation on vote-buying, and Greenpeace’s own Tokyo Two’s domestic spotlight on an unscrupulous industry have undoubtedly taken their toll.

But it’s difficult to read just now, as the BBC’s Richard Black sums up well here, not least because the Japanese government isn’t always very open or transparent about its whaling programme. It could well be that the biggest and most painful driver at the moment is financial, with a squeeze on the Japanese economy making the defence of the indefensible simply not worth the fight anymore.

The pattern is not dissimilar in the other whaling nations, Iceland and Norway, where the bravado and spin supporting the industry belies the truth of an industry - and a much-defended ‘tradition’ - in its death throes. But, like a monster in a B-rated movie, we must be careful not to assume the thing is dead until it really is, and changing things in Japan is the best way to make sure we deliver that much-needed silver bullet.