Japan is the world's most ardent whaling nation
By Richard Black
Environment correspondent, BBC News, Madeira
The annual meeting of the International Whaling Commission (IWC) has opened, with compromise talks between pro- and anti-whaling bloc delicately poised.
The compromise "package" would see Japan trim its Antarctic hunt in return for the right to catch whales quasi-commercially in its coastal waters.
The original aim of finishing the talks by this year's meeting has been missed.
Iceland will face criticism from anti-whaling groups for expanding its hunt of fin whales, listed as endangered.
The first fins of the season, from an annual quota of 150, were taken last week.
This year's meeting is also likely to see intense debate over Greenland's renewed efforts to add humpback whales to the species already hunted by its indigenous Inuit communities.
Under the IWC's US chairman William Hogarth, compromise talks began formally a year ago but have not progressed as he hoped.
"We didn't get to where we wanted to be, but there's a lot of thought going into how we do it," Mr Hogarth told BBC News.
"Countries take these issues very seriously, and some constituencies don't want to give anything - that makes things very difficult."
The main demand of anti-whaling nations has been that Japan must end - or place under international supervision - its scientific hunting programmes.
The 1946 International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling (ICRW) allows any country to catch as many whales as it wants for research.
But critics say the measure was never intended to be used for catches numbering hundreds each year.
Japan's main aim is that four coastal communities with a history of whaling be allowed to hunt 150 minke whales each year for local consumption.
Thin end of the wedge
Although keen to see an end to scientific hunting, some anti-whaling countries have grave reservations about the proposed deal.
THE LEGALITIES OF WHALING
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
"We do have concerns over Japan's proposal for coastal whaling," said UK environment minister Huw Irranca-Davies.
"We see this as the thin end of the wedge in regard of what Japan's intention may be, but also what it could potentially open up for other countries, notably South Korea," he told BBC News
Earlier this year the South Korean government indicated it would seek a coastal whaling quota if Japan's bid were successful.
Portugal's environment minister Humberto Rosa said he was not opposed to coastal whaling in principle - the key was in the detail.
"The way to go in my opinion is to make it very conditioned, so we don't have coastal whaling anywhere in the world but only in some very special restricted and controlled situation, and with less whales killed than today," he said.
Despite their reservations, the UK and its European allies want the negotiations to continue for a further year - as do Japan and the US.
But as delegates emerged from a final session of preliminary talks on Sunday, different views emerged on whether a deal was still worth pursuing.
Some delegates suggested that fundamental divisions could yet force the process's termination before the end of the week; one said talks were "on the brink".
Collapse would leave the regulation of whaling and the conservation of whales as fractured - and in many peoples' view, dysfunctional - as it has been for the last two decades.
Flexible on fins
Iceland's whale hunt has been much smaller than Japan's in recent years; but in January, to the fury of conservation groups, the outgoing government of Geir Haarde granted an annual quota of 100 minke whales and 150 fins.
Only seven fins had been caught in the previous three years. The company involved, Hvalur hf, acknowledges there is no market in Iceland for the meat, but intends to export as much as possible, with Japan the main destination.
Hvalur says the local population of fins, thought to number about 30,000, is not at risk.
Iceland is expected to apply to join the EU later this year as a way out of its crippling financial crisis, and anti-whaling groups believe the EU will demand the abandonment of whaling as a condition of membership.
But Mr Rosa said this was not necessarily the case.
"That's something we'll have to settle with Iceland and within the EU," he said.
"We can have the flexibility within the EU to accommodate very different national circumstances."
Iceland's close neighbour Greenland is also likely to attract ire from conservation groups as it seeks for the third year in succession to include humpback whales in its annual hunt.
The bid was rejected at the last two IWC meetings because of concerns that the hunt had become too commercial in nature, and that Greenland had not adequately made the case that its Inuit communities actually needed the meat.
But IWC scientists have ruled that the quota is sustainable, and those in favour of whaling will probably cite that fact - as they did last year - as evidence that the anti-whaling bloc are more concerned with the emotional appeal of the acrobatic humpback than they are with science and the nutritional needs of indigenous peoples.