Nations on either side of the whale hunting debate are set for a standoff as the International Whaling Commission (IWC) meets Monday, with Japan hoping to overturn the 32-year-old ban on commercial whale hunting.
Japan will unveil proposals during the meeting in Florianopolis, Brazil, that outraged conservationists say are a blatant attempt to overturn the hunting moratorium that has largely held together since 1986.
"If Japan's proposals were accepted it would once again be open season on whales, so this is the most dangerous and reckless attempt to bring back commercial whaling that we have seen in decades," said Claire Bass, head of Humane Society International UK.
Japan, which exploits a moratorium loophole to hunt whales for "scientific purposes," argues that recovering stocks of some species justifies a return to "sustainable whaling."
Brazil is instead trying to rally anti-whaling nations behind a "Florianopolis Declaration," which states that commercial whaling is no longer a necessary economic activity, favoring increased investment in whale watching.
"Our challenge at this meeting is whether we can bridge the two different ideas or find a situation where we can agree to disagree so that we can see the future rather than just fighting each other," Joji Morishita, the incoming Japanese commission chairman, told AFP
Other key issues being discussed in the week-long meeting are risks to whales of human-made underwater noise pollution, ship strikes, climate change and fishing gear entanglement.
Nations opposed to whaling plan to renew a long-standing proposal for the creation of a South Atlantic Whale Sanctuary, after previous proposals were knocked down by the pro-whaling lobby.
The Japanese delegation argues that stocks of Minke whales and other species have recovered, and proposes setting new catch quotas "for species whose stocks are recognized as healthy by the IWC's scientific committee."
- Rule change -
Among Japan's proposed reforms is a rule change that would allow decisions to be made by simple majority vote, doing away with the current practice of a three-quarters majority being needed.
Japan says the commission's decision making ability is hampered by this rule, because of the rift between supporters and opponents of whaling.
It also wants to set up a "Sustainable Whaling Committee" which would create catch-quotas for nations wishing to allow their nationals to hunt healthy whale populations for commercial purposes.
It would commit the IWC to re-establish commercial whaling quotas from 2020. Under its scientific whaling program, Japanese fishermen harpooned 333 Minke whales this year.
Iceland and Norway are the only countries that allow commercial whaling and are likely to come under renewed pressure at the IWC meeting, which runs until Friday.
"This meeting is critical," said Patrick Ramage of the International Fund for Animal Welfare.
"Member countries must stand together and push progress towards whale protection, not let this commission be pulled back into the bygone era of commercial whaling."
Conservation groups are opposed to a proposal before the IWC to increase annual whale kill quotas for countries where aboriginal subsistence hunting is practiced, including the United States, Russia, Greenland and Saint Vincent and the Grenadines.
The IWC, set up in 1946, meets every two years. The African island nation of Sao Tome and Principe recently became the body's 89th member.