By Richard Black
Environment correspondent, BBC News website
The time may be just right for a political resolution
Timing is everything; in diplomacy, in sports and in comedy.
The annual meetings of the International Whaling Commission (IWC) have at times fallen into all three categories.
There are diplomatic (and sometimes un-diplomatic) attempts to build forces and push agendas through.
There is often vigorous jousting with verbal harpoons; and there are definitely elements of comedy in some of the more self-important
interjections and excessive awareness of TV cameras shown by some of the delegates.
This year, the IWC turns 60; and there are signs of a new maturity.
Some parties in both pro- and anti-whaling camps have had enough of the deadlock which on one side sees up to 2,500 whales hunted each year under what is supposed to be a global moratorium, and on the other sees little appreciation of the argument that whales are just another natural resource that can be hunted sustainably.
The IWC needs a three-quarters majority to make major changes, and it has long been clear that neither side is likely to achieve that. So its member governments have a choice: to continue what is likely to be a fruitless search for ultimate victory, or to find a compromise.
As delegates make their way to the Chilean capital Santiago for this year's meeting, which opens on Monday, there are indications that the timing may be right to build bridges across the divide.
"It's not impossible to come to some kind of agreement or compromise," says Joji Morishita, Japan's alternate (deputy) commissioner to the IWC.
"In the past we had discussions on various proposals but the time was not ripe. I couldn't say that it's fully ripe this time, but all the players and member countries recognise now that if we can't reach some kind of compromise, the IWC will collapse."
Mr Morishita's Brazilian counterpart, Jose Truda Palazzo, agrees that common ground may be found.
"Compromise is possible; however, it will depend on parties being honestly willing to concede on practical issues," he says.
And there is the rub. There are things on which the various camps appear honestly to agree - the need to conserve the iconic blue whale, the need to research potential impacts of climate change - but on hunting, the divide is deep and largely genuine.
Harpoons to ploughshares
The current IWC chairman, William Hogarth, has spent the last year attempting to create an environment in which trust and constructive dialogue can flourish.
He convened a special IWC meeting in London in January, and brought in experts in international law and international agreements to help him, such as Alvaro de Soto, whose diplomacy helped end the El Salvador civil war in 1991.
Australia and Japan disagree on whaling but agree on much else
Also called in as special adviser was Calestous Juma, an international governance expert from Harvard University.
"I'm confident that the parties will find common ground on a larger number of issues than they think possible," he says.
"This is a moment when creativity is more important that victory."
Negotiators do not have to look far to find the elements of what a compromise might look like, because the IWC has approached the issue several times before.
The anti-whaling bloc would be likely to insist that scientific whaling - under which Japan currently hunts - would be banned, that greater areas of ocean be set aside as whale sanctuaries, that existing sanctuaries be respected, that international observers monitor hunts, that DNA registries of whalemeat be set up, that international trade be banned, and - above all - that the overall number of whales being hunted falls significantly and permanently.
The pro-whaling position is a bit more complicated. Japan, which attracts most of the attention, has long asked that its coastal fleets be allowed to hunt commercially, with sustainable quotas; but Norway, which hunts similar numbers to Japan in openly commercial fashion, has little to gain from any change of rules.
THE LEGALITIES OF WHALING
Under the global moratorium on commercial whaling, hunting is conducted in three ways:
Objection - A country formally objects to the IWC moratorium, declaring itself exempt. Example: Norway
Scientific - A nation issues unilateral 'scientific permits'; any IWC member can do this. Example: Japan
Aboriginal - IWC grants permits to indigenous groups for subsistence food. Example: Alaskan Inupiat
Other countries might be looking for clauses that would allow them to begin hunting. Some European countries believe China, South Korea and the Faroe Islands fall in this category.
For some, this is all too much.
The anti-whaling camp, which has long maintained a public show of unity, is in fact split between doves and hawks - those who believe a compromise would be better than the current impasse, and those who would keep fighting for a total global ban (except for the subsistence quotas awarded to indigenous groups).
The recent declaration that Dominica, one of Japan's traditional allies, will not automatically support pro-hunting resolutions adds weight to the hawks' thesis that a consensus big enough to defeat the whalers can eventually be built.
The hawks are supported by the majority of environmental groups that cannot countenance any acceptance of commercial whaling, however limited.
So why does it matter whether the IWC finds ways to reform itself into a properly functioning organisation?
Well, if you care about whales and the other varieties of cetaceans, it certainly should matter.
It is currently the only organisation that can regulate hunting. It is also the organisation best placed to build a comprehensive picture of the various threats facing all cetaceans, not just the great whales, and to advise governments and other authorities how to respond.
Japan's "scientific" whaling is still the major sticking point for anti-whalers
Conservationists argue that the IWC should be devoting far more of its attention to issues such as whales being hit by ships, the effects of pollution and climate change, and the pressures that drive species such as the baiji (or Yangtse river dolphin) to extinction.
As things stand, it cannot. The logjam of hunting has to be overcome first.
From the point of view of whaling societies, meanwhile, repairing the IWC could put the days of opprobrium behind them.
They believe what they do is legitimate and sustainable, and would like to be left alone to catch their whales in peace.
William Hogarth believes the first steps to resolving all this must and will be taken in Santiago.
"I'm fairly optimistic - I sense that many of the parties involved do want to move forward," he says.
"I think we can come to agreement on a process that would aim to deliver a package by the 2009 IWC meeting."
Dr Hogarth was instrumental in persuading Japan to withdraw plans to include humpback whales in its annual Antarctic hunt, which Japan says is a gesture intended to show it can be flexible and is prepared to compromise.
Japan has also pledged that so long as a constructive atmosphere endures in Santiago, it will not table its usual request for commercial quotas for its traditional whaling communities, nor spring surprise motions on the meeting.
Its officials now say that having made what it sees as conciliatory gestures, it must see something concrete from the opposing faction next week, otherwise it is likely to give up on the organisation and walk away - potentially ushering in a situation where whaling was largely unregulated.
So far, there is no sign that the anti-whaling bloc is prepared to offer anything, beyond being a bit nicer in meetings.
Campaign groups are raising support for an Atlantic whale sanctuary
The main ambition of the South American countries has long been to secure a whale sanctuary in the South Atlantic.
It has tabled the proposal before, and has never looked like achieving the three-quarters majority.
"The sanctuary is again being proposed, it will be discussed in Santiago," says Mr Palazzo.
How far the South Americans push it, and how Japan reacts, will be vital factors in determining the course of the meeting.
There are, of course, two ways to deal with a logjam. If removing it is too hard, you just abandon the attempt, and take a different route.
"The momentum built in the last year for a diplomatic solution will not last much longer," says Remi Parmentier, senior policy adviser to the Pew Environment Group.
"If no outcome is found by next year, it may well be too late."