The International Whaling Commission begins a five-day meeting Monday in Morocco's Atlantic resort of Agadir - arguably its most important gathering since 1986, when a moratorium on commercial whaling halted the factory-style slaughter of tens of thousands of animals every year.
A compromise that would suspend the whaling ban has been drafted by the agency's chairman, but it's an unhappy option for nations that abhor whaling. The deal would legitimize commercial hunting in exchange for a drop in the number of whales actually killed by those claiming exemptions to the ban - Japan, Norway and Iceland.
The proposal, the agency says, would end the wildcat whaling that still kills up to 2,000 whales a year, including species on the verge of extinction. Japan's unrestricted whale hunt, allegedly for "scientific research," currently ends up sending more whale meat to sushi bars than laboratories.
Since the ban took place, about 33,600 whales have been killed, according to the Animal Welfare Institute in Washington.
The 88-nation whaling commission also hopes to dispel what its chairman calls an "atmosphere of confrontation and mistrust" that has frozen the agency's work for decades, and to reaffirm its relevance as a regulatory force.
The IWC "is fundamentally broken and must be fixed," the chief U.S. negotiator, Monica Median, told reporters earlier this year.
IWC Chairman Cristian Maquieira published his proposal in April to bring the three whaling nations back under the agency's control by allowing them to hunt commercially under closely monitored quotas.
Advocates say 5,000 whales will be saved over the 10-year life of the deal. Opponents question that claim, and say the proposal would legitimize hunting for profit and throw a lifeline to a dying industry that has constant confrontations with environmental groups on the world's oceans.
"The points of view differ a lot," Marie-Josee Jenniskens, head of the Netherlands' delegation, told The Associated Press. "I wish I could be more optimistic."
She said Maquieira's original compromise was being modified, and a new draft was likely to be unveiled Monday. Maquieira himself is not attending due to illness, and the convention will be chaired by his deputy, Anthony Liverpool of Antigua and Barbuda.
Maquieira says his proposal tried to strike "a delicate balance" that admittedly will satisfy no one.
Under it, Japan would be allowed to hunt in the Antarctic Whale Sanctuary, officially declared a no-go zone in 1994 but where Japanese whaling ships haul most of their catch now anyway. The draft says the quotas would involve a "significant reduction," from today's levels but leaves open the question whether whale meat and other whale products can be traded internationally.
Objections to the draft have been swift and firm.
"The Australian government cannot accept this proposal as it currently stands," Environment Protection Minister Peter Garrett said. Australia has already launched a complaint against Japanese whaling at the International Court of Justice in The Hague, the U.N.'s highest court.
The German parliament urged its government to reject the proposal, saying "we can only guess at how fatal the consequences will be for marine ecosystems."
The United States also has voiced reservations, especially over the number of whales the three countries will be allowed to hunt.
Conservationists say the catch quotas must be based on scientific evaluations of whale populations rather than on recent catches.
"The quotas have more to do with political science than biological science," said Patrick Ramage of the International Fund for Animal Welfare.
Ramage is worried that the U.S. is too anxious for a deal, partly because Washington fears Japan could veto the approved catch by Alaskan Inuit hunters, which falls under a clause allowing Aboriginal subsistence whaling.
"There has been decades of steady progress in conservation. All of that is threatened with reversal by a politically expedient proposal that some governments are trying to rush through," Ramage said.
Several environmental groups said they would favor a deal only if endangered species are excluded from the hunt, whaling is stopped in the Antarctic sanctuary, trade in whale products is outlawed and no country is exempt.
"If we leave Agadir with no decision, that is not a victory, because we are not doing what the whales need," said Susan Lieberman of the Pew Environment Group.
WWF said a compromise was clearly needed to end the exemptions claimed by the three nations and bring whaling back under the commission's control.
"But we will not support a compromise at any cost," said WWF's Wendy Elliott. "The IWC is at a crossroads, and the integrity of the commission is in the balance."