By Alex Kirby
BBC News Online environment correspondent in Sorrento, Italy
In the closing hours of its annual meeting, the International Whaling Commission moved cautiously towards a resumption of the commercial hunt.
The number of whales taken could soon increase (Image: Mark Votier/WDCS)
It established a process which could see agreement next year on its Revised Management Scheme, a scientifically sound way to set catch limits.
Some conservationists fear this will trigger the rapid lifting of the 1986 moratorium on commercial whaling.
The whaling nations say it is a small progress - but are quietly confident.
The IWC has been split for years 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 managed to avoid doing so. The IWC chairman, Henrik Fischer of Denmark, this year put forward a plan designed to hasten the adoption by the commission of an RMS.
The resolution based on his proposal, tabled by a small group of member states and now agreed, recognises the commission's "dual mandate" of managing whaling and also conserving whales.
It commits the IWC to "proceed expeditiously" to completing a draft RMS for "possible" adoption at its 2005 meeting in Ulsan, South Korea.
Mr Fischer suggested that if the RMS were agreed the moratorium on commercial whaling should automatically end, with whaling restricted to coastal waters for five years and allowed anywhere after that.
John Frizell of Greenpeace International, which completely opposes any resumption of commercial whaling, said an automatic end to the ban would be "absurd".
The pro-whaling nations hope the countries which tabled the resolution will support the adoption of the RMS once a draft is agreed, enabling it to pass by consensus. Then, in their view, few countries would argue to keep the moratorium.
Mr Morimoto believes there is still much to be done
Some conservationists say a block of IWC members has been too ready to give ground.
Andy Ottaway of the UK-based group Campaign Whale said "compromise-minded countries" were threatening to leave the IWC if it did not adopt the RMS.
He told BBC News Online: "The fate of the whales is hanging by a thread. We could lose the moratorium next year."
Others welcome the readiness of the anti-whaling countries to make concessions in an effort to end the IWC's paralysis, but say the compromise has been entirely one-sided.
They say Japan and Norway both intend to continue their present whaling operations come what may, Japan in the name of science and Norway in its commercial hunt. With Iceland, they have killed more than 25,000 whales since 1986.
Vassili Papastavrou, of the International Fund for Animal Welfare, told BBC News Online: "Whaling is going on right now, and we have no indication that any of the three countries would abide by any scheme on the table."
Rune Frovik of the High North Alliance, a Norwegian pro-whaling group, told BBC News Online: "Today's vote is a small step forward, but there is a very long way still to go." He may well be right.
Minoru Morimoto, the leader of the Japanese delegation, said he was "not optimistic about achieving a satisfactory outcome by the next meeting".
But for all that, the countries which want the moratorium lifted are heading home more confidently than they have for years.