A deal that could regulate whaling for the next 10 years is up for debate at the International Whaling Commission’s meeting opening in Agadir, Morocco.
The proposal would see Iceland, Japan and Norway given annual quotas with hunts more tightly scrutinised, while international trade could be banned.
Some anti-whaling countries and some conservation groups support the idea, while others are implacably opposed.
Few observers are prepared to predict whether the deal will be approved.
The week-long annual meeting in Agadir marks the final stage in a two-year US-led process that has seen bitter foes such as Australia and Japan working together in attempts to find areas of compromise.
Two months ago, the IWC chairman released a draft proposal that was based on discussions held over the two years.
Following preparatory talks here on that draft, there were indications that the sides remained far apart.
Australia’s commissioner to the IWC, Donna Petrachenko, argued that as things stand, the deal would undermine the commercial whaling moratorium that has been in place since 1986.
“The moratorium must remain in place,” she said.
“And what we see in this proposal would be sanctioning of commercial whaling in the Southern Ocean, in a whale sanctuary; and commercial whaling in the North Pacific and commercial whaling in the North Atlantic.”
On the other side of the divide, whaling countries accused the anti-whaling bloc of not accepting the legitimacy of their concerns.
“There are basically two groups of countries, one in favour of sustainable whaling and the other opposed to whaling, except for Aboriginal subsistence purposes,” said Tomas Heidar, Iceland’s IWC commissioner.
“To our mind, the logical compromise is limited whaling – but now, as we come to Agadir, we see that not many of the anti-whaling countries are prepared to contemplate anything other than Aboriginal subsistence whaling, so consequently I’ve no reason to be optimistic that there will be a compromise,” he told BBC News.
“But we will continue to work constructively.”
Iceland and Australia mark the extreme ends of the spectrum of opinion on the issue; and other anti-whaling countries, such as the US, New Zealand and the majority of EU member states, appear willing to sanction a deal provided it meets their “bottom-line” positions.
Broadly speaking, this means a significant phase-down (ideally a complete phase-out) of Japan’s Antarctic hunt, agreement that whale meat is for domestic use only, the end of hunting on threatened species, and the imposition of control measures such as a DNA register of meat.
Whether Japan is prepared to accept a near phase-out of its Antarctic programme is possibly the biggest single factor.
Currently, the draft proposal offers an annual quota of 400 minke whales, going down to 200 after five years.
Conservation groups say these numbers are too high; but Japan says they are too low.
However, some long-time observers believe Tokyo does want to strike a deal and will be offering further concessions as the week unfolds.
The issue has split the environmental groups engaged on the whaling issue.
For some, such as WWF and Greenpeace, a deal – though far from their perfect solution, which is an end to all whaling – would be a marked improvement on the current situation, wherein Japan, Iceland and Norway set their quotas unilaterally.
“The global whaling moratorium is without doubt one of the most impressive conservation achievements of our time; yet it’s not working for everyone,” said Wendy Elliott, manager of the species programme with WWF International.
“We have three governments that are whaling commercially, either under the guise of science or under objection to that ban – the quotas are too high in some cases, and there’s no international oversight.