By Alex Kirby
BBC News Online environment correspondent, in Sorrento, Italy
The opponents of whaling fear a return to commercial hunting is virtually inevitable within the next few years.
The rules would set commercial quotas
Conservation groups at the annual meeting of the International Whaling Commission believe the 1986 whaling moratorium cannot last much longer.
They say moves to agree new rules to regulate whaling look likely soon to be forced through the IWC.
They also think welfare will be sidelined, with few checks to ensure whales suffer as little as possible.
At issue is a proposal by the IWC chairman, Henrik Fischer of Denmark, designed to hasten the adoption by the commission of a revised management scheme (RMS) - essentially a scientifically sound way to set catch limits.
The IWC has been becalmed for years in arguments between the whalers - Japan, Norway and Iceland - who say stocks of some species are abundant enough to hunt, and their opponents.
The anti-whalers agree in theory that the IWC should set catch limits, but have found ways in practice to avoid doing so.
The Fischer plan has now been discussed at length by the IWC, and looks certain to go before its 2005 meeting in South Korea, where many participants expect it will be agreed.
If and when it is, they say, it will be very difficult for the anti-whalers to insist on keeping the moratorium on commercial whaling which has been in force since 1986.
More minke whales could soon be taken (Image: Francois Gohier)
Mr Fischer says his compromise plan would mean only some stocks of minke whales, the smallest and most abundant of the great whales, could be caught.
He says: "It would not result, contrary to popular opinion in some countries, in a 'free-for-all' on all stocks of all whale species."
But some conservationists see the future much more starkly. Andy Ottaway, of the UK group Campaign Whale, told BBC News Online: "It will take an incredible effort now to stop the commission agreeing the RMS, and to safeguard all the gains of the 18 years since the ban began.
"If we lose the moratorium, we'll have lost everything we've fought for."
Time to death
WWF, the global environment campaign, said Mr Fischer's plan was "fundamentally flawed... an unacceptable framework that omits key conservation safeguards".
It criticised the plan for suggesting the moratorium should be lifted automatically once the RMS was approved.
Major-General Peter Davies, director-general of the World Society for the Protection of Animals, told BBC News Online: "We're deeply concerned at any move that could mean the lifting of the moratorium, because whaling is inherently cruel."
This year, unusually, there is no meeting of the IWC working group on whale killing methods and other welfare issues.
It is not clear how long it really takes for whales to die (Image: Mark Votier/WDCS)
A motion tabled by New Zealand and backed by other countries, including the UK, asks for the group to meet in 2005, to advise the commission on ways to make killing methods more efficient, and to reduce times to death.
From 1998 to 2002 Norway reported the average time it took hunted whales to die after being struck by an explosive harpoon was 141 seconds, with Japan reporting 157 seconds.
Some conservation groups fear the IWC risks ignoring cruelty.
Andy Ottaway said: "Unless members insist the IWC addresses welfare issues, they're engaging in a process that will ensure that whales continue to die agonising and inhumane deaths."