SHIMONOSEKI, Japan (AP) _ Although the International Whaling Commission banned commercial whaling 16 years ago, when its delegates gather in this southern port they won't have to go far to find a bowl of whale soup, or a plate of whale sashimi.

Frustrated by the global whaling ban, which it has strongly criticized for years, Japan has chosen to hold the annual IWC meeting later this month in what used to be the heart of its commercial whaling industry.

But while Japan's delegates once again argue for the immediate lifting of the ban, Mariko Fujino and other whale merchants will be in a fish market just down the street doing what they do every morning _ selling whale meat.

Despite the commercial ban, they've got a lot to sell.

Inside Fujino's refrigerated display case are dark gray chunks of whale fluke that go for as much as 45,000 yen a kilogram ($200 a pound). She has whale bacon, whale blubber _ with or without a layer of skin on top _ and bright red blocks of whale sashimi.

``Whale is so delicious,'' Fujino said. ``Why would anyone tell us to stop eating it?''

Officials hope that holding the IWC meeting in Shimonoseki, a former center of commercial whaling that is now home port of Japan's research whaling fleet, will be an eye-opener for the commission. Fujino and other whale merchants get their supply of whale meat from the research fleet's catch.

``We want the delegates to see our history as a whaling nation,'' said Makoto Arizono, a fisheries official with the local government. ``We want their understanding.''

This year's IWC meeting, the first in Japan in nine years, is to begin with scientific committee discussions from April 25. The plenary meeting is to be held from May 20-24.

Shimonoseki is already decked out in its IWC best.

At night, the main hotel by the convention center lights up with a whale likeness across several of its upper floors. Banners welcoming the delegations from the 41-nation IWC line the main streets.

More striking, however, is the easy availability of whale here.

There are perhaps dozens of whale restaurants in town, several within walking distance of the convention center. Whale products _ including whale meat sausage _ are sold at the nearest airport.

Officials point out that the trade is legal.

Japan's research program, under which several hundred of the mammals are killed annually, provides whale merchants with a dependable, year-round supply of just about any cut the discerning Japanese gourmet might desire.

Anti-whaling groups have long criticized the research program as a thinly disguised means of keeping Japan's whaling fleet afloat.

``Japan's research whaling program is essentially no different from commercial whaling,'' said Junko Sakurai of Greenpeace Japan. ``They are only conducting the kind of research that gives them whale meat. There are other ways, such as observation.''

Even so, the killing of whales for research purposes is allowed under the IWC's own rules, which also provide for the meat to then be sold. Much of the proceeds go to the nonprofit, government-backed institute that is in charge of the research program.

But while the research catch provides tons of whale byproducts to traders each year, Japan has argued that the market should be much bigger, and there is no reason why the commercial ban should stand. Officials here say the ban infringes on its ``cultural right'' to choose whether or not to eat whale.

Though they are not expected to muster the three-fourths majority needed to end the ban, Japanese officials believe they have a solid scientific case to resume the commercial killing of whales as well.

The population of many whale species has increased so much, they say, that the sheer volume of food they need has actually become a threat to the ocean environment. Whales eat approximately 250 to 500 million metric tons of fish each year, which is from three to six times the total amount fished by humans.

Posters already up in Shimonoseki show a voracious whale sucking the fish from a watery globe. Under the whale a caption said, ``We can't put up with this.''

One leading fisheries expert, Joji Morishita, even suggested in a book that recent beachings of whales may be the result of an ecological imbalance created by their excessive numbers.

Not all experts agree with that line of reasoning, but many acknowledge that some whale species are plentiful enough to absorb limited kills.

There are an estimated 760,000 minke whales in the Antarctic Ocean, according to the IWC's scientific committee, which acknowledges that the 400 or 500 killed under Japan's annual research program represent little threat to the survival of the species itself.

In the minds of many whaling opponents, the threat of extinction is no longer the issue.

``We are against a lifting of the ban on commercial whaling regardless of the extent of whale population recovery,'' said Nanami Kurasawa of the Dolphin and Whale Action Network, one of several anti-whaling groups that are planning protests here ahead of the IWC meeting.

``Whales are part of nature that humans should not touch,'' she said.