By Richard Black
Environment correspondent, BBC News
The proposal would secure a future for Japanese coastal whaling
The International Whaling Commission (IWC) has published draft proposals for regulating whaling for the next decade.
Japan's Antarctic whale hunt would fall in stages to less than a quarter of its current size. But hunting would continue on the endangered fin whale.
The draft is the latest stage in a two-year process aiming to find compromise between pro- and anti-whaling camps.
It will be debated at the IWC's annual meeting in June. Some conservation groups have already condemned it.
Commercial whaling was banned globally in 1982, but Iceland, Japan and Norway continue to hunt under various exemptions, collectively targeting more than 2,000 whales each year.
"If an agreement is reached, this represents a great step forward in terms of the conservation of whales and the management of whaling," said IWC chairman Cristian Maquieira.
"For the first time since the adoption of the commercial whaling moratorium, we will have strict, enforceable limits on all whaling operations.
"As a result, several thousand less whales will be killed over the period of the agreement."
Key countries, including the US and Japan, have limited comments to saying they will consider the draft proposal carefully.
But some conservation and animal welfare groups have already indicated opposition.
"The fact that this proposal is even being discussed shows just how far out of touch the IWC is with modern values," said Claire Bass, manager of the Marine Mammal Programme at the World Society for the Protection of Animals (WSPA).
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
"It is entirely missing the point that blasting conscious animals with exploding harpoons is grossly inhumane."
However, others argue that the aim of completely banning whaling is unrealistic, and that a major down-scaling, combined with bringing it under international oversight, is a worthwhile compromise.
But the inclusion of fin whales and the continuation of hunting in the Southern Ocean - which has been declared a whale sanctuary - are points of concern.
"There are some positive elements here, but there are some unacceptable provisions too," said Sue Lieberman, director of international policy with the Pew Environment Group.
"This allows whaling by Japan to continue in the Southern Ocean - and the Southern Ocean Sanctuary should be set in stone."
Japan currently targets about 930 minke whales and 50 fins in each Antarctic season, though in recent years it has actually caught a lot fewer owing to skirmishes with ships of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society and to a fire on the factory ship Nisshin Maru.
The draft envisages the annual Antarctic minke catch falling to 400 immediately, then to 200 in the 2015/16 season.
The fin whale quota would be set at 10 now, falling to five in 2013/4.
A demand that Japan has made regularly for several years - that it be allocated a commercial or quasi-commercial minke whale quota in the North Pacific waters around its coasts - would be granted, with 120 of the animals targeted each year.
Iceland - which last year mounted a major escalation in its fin whale hunt, catching 125 - would be allocated an annual quota of 80 fins and 80 minkes, which is considerably less than it has been demanding.
Norway's annual quota would be set at 600 minkes, and no other country would be permitted to start hunting - a clause that has aroused the ire of South Korea.
It is clear that the big players are still some way apart on key issues, including whether international trade should be permitted during the 10-year period.
Permitting it is a key demand of Iceland, which sees a potentially big export market in Japan. But conservation groups and anti-whaling nations are equally adamant that it must be stopped.
International trade in whalemeat is banned, but Iceland, Japan and Norway have registered exemptions to the UN wildlife trade convention for some whale species.
The endangered fin whale would continue to be a target
If adopted at the June IWC meeting, the "peace package" would set terms for the next 10 years, with a review after five.
Initial quotas could be amended downwards if scientific assessments indicated the necessity.
Governments would agree not to set quotas unilaterally, and to keep all hunting within the control of the IWC, effectively suspending the current measures of "scientific" whaling or hunting "under objection".
Whaling nations would have to agree to a monitoring regime involving observers on boats and a DNA register designed to keep illegal whalemeat out of the market.
Whaling by indigenous groups would not be affected.