Moves to make a peace deal between pro and anti-whaling nations have stalled, with no chance of agreement this year.
Countries have been talking for nearly a year in an attempt to hammer out an accord by this year’s International Whaling Commission (IWC) meeting.
But a draft report seen by BBC News admits the process has “fallen short”.
A source close to the talks blamed Japan, saying it had not offered big enough cuts in its Antarctic hunt, conducted in the name of research.
Earlier meetings had raised the possibility that Japan might countenance annual reductions in its catch over the next five years, perhaps down to zero.
However, the source said that at a meeting held last month in San Francisco, Japan had offered to cut the haul to 650 minke whales per year, only 29 fewer than were caught last season.
This, the source said, “killed any prospect of agreement in Madeira” – the location for this year’s IWC meeting, which takes place next month.
In return for downscaling its annual scientific hunt, Japan has been seeking a small annual quota for four coastal communities which, it says, have whaling as an important part of their cultural background.
This has drawn the ire of many environment groups, which say it would effectively contravene the 1982 global moratorium on commercial whaling.
The working group that has been discussing the proposed deal will ask the IWC’s scientific committee to investigate how quotas for such “small-type coastal whaling” might be regulated.
Japan is seeking a quota of 150 minke whales per year.
Informal discussions on the “peace process” started two years ago, and the formal process was instigated at last year’s IWC meeting in Santiago.
Led by the US chairman, William Hogarth, the IWC established a small working group of countries to pursue discussions over the year.
The idea was to find a “package” of reforms that all sides could live with.
Its report is due for publication on 18 May.
The draft seen by BBC News says that given the complexities and the sensitivities, “it should not come as a surprise that it has thus far not been possible to secure agreement” on the key issues – scientific hunting, small-type coastal whaling and whale sanctuaries.
But, it says, “significant concrete results” have emerged from the process, citing “the greatly improved atmosphere and the spirit of respectful dialogue”.
Conservation groups have been divided on the merits of the process.
Some are opposed to any deal that would allow commercial hunting, on however limited a scale.
They are also concerned that other countries may seek to engage in small-type coastal whaling if the category were established.
A South Korean newspaper recently reported that the Seoul government would pursue such a request.
Other conservation groups have backed the process as something that could reduce the overall annual catch – now numbering about 2,000 – of species under the IWC’s jurisdiction.
The working group’s report suggests the process should continue for a further year, a notion that appears to command support in Washington and Tokyo.
Last month, a meeting of 32 IWC member nations from the “pro-sustainable use” bloc, held in Tokyo, agreed that the peace process should have their backing.
But, they declared, whales should not be placed in a special category of animals exempt from “sustainable use”.
They welcomed the recent trading of whale meat between Iceland, Norway and Japan, and rejected the creation of whale sanctuaries – all of which place them at odds with the aims of anti-whaling countries.