Pro-whaling nations led by Japan will make a bid for control of the world body credited with saving the planet's biggest creatures from extinction.
In what would be a severe blow to the Green movement, which earned a global following with the 1980s "Save the Whales" campaign, pro-whaling states hope to grab a voting majority on the International Whaling Commission (IWC) Friday.
Gloomy environmentalists all but admitted defeat on the eve of the IWC's annual meeting at a luxury beach resort in the sleepy Caribbean state of St Kitts and Nevis.
A catcher ship of the Japanese whaling fleet injures a whale with its first harpoon attempt before killing it in the Southern Ocean off Antarctica in January 2006. Pro-whaling nations and foes in the global Green movement were braced for a cliffhanger vote for control of the body credited with saving whales from extinction.(AFP/Greenpeace/File)
"It would be a great reverse, no doubt about it," said John Frizell, a Greenpeace activist who has been a fixture of IWC events since the 1970s.
Some activists also lashed out at Japan, which they accuse of using foreign aid to bribe poverty stricken Pacific and Caribbean nations to back its bid to return the IWC back into a whalers' club.
"What they will look to do is take the IWC back to 1946," said Susan Lieberman, a senior WWF official, referring to the date when the body was set up to check alarming over hunting and save whales from extinction.
"The world has moved on from 1946, we don't want to go back to 1946."
A two-decades old moratorium on commercial whaling is not thought to be under immediate threat -- it needs a 75 percent majority in the IWC to be overturned -- but whaling opponents fear its days could eventually be numbered.
They believe that armed with a majority, pro-whaling nations could crush whale conservation efforts, revoke observer status for groups like Greenpeace which disrupt whales hunts and stifle transparency on the IWC.
Japan immediately rejected Lieberman's comments about a 60-year roll back for conservation.
"To make that kind of claim is outrageous," said Glenn Inwood, a spokesman for Japan's IWC delegation, arguing that not in anyone's "widest imaginations" would a modern whaling operation resemble the mass culling of the past.
Japan argues the moratorium has been so successful that whaling of certain species can now be carried out in a sustainable manner, without harming whale overall whale stocks.
As they arrived at St Kitts, delegates were furiously totting up how Friday's first votes could go.
"On paper, it appears that the Japanese, or the pro-whaling bloc has a majority," said Joth Singh, of the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW).
In terms of votes, pro-whaling nations seemed to have around 35 votes to 30 for the anti-whaling block, which includes Australia, New Zealand and Britain, he said.
The vote will still be a cliffhanger however, because although the IWC has 70 members, it is not sure if all will show up.
Japan also hoped to take a grip on the IWC at last year's meeting in South Korea, but several states expected to vote with the pro-whaling block did not show up, or pay their annual dues, so could not vote.
The Japanese delegation refused to predict how the votes would go.
"We think its too early to say ... we don't know who is going to come," said Inwood.
The new mathematics of the IWC will become clear on Friday, when the body takes a vote on its agenda for the meeting which wraps up on June 20.
There was a glimmer of hope for the anti-whaling campaign when it emerged Thursday that Guatemala, which had been expected to side with Japan, did not show up.
The Marshall Islands was also said to be agonising whether to join Tokyo's camp, environmental sources said, adding that Honduras, also a possible Japan supporter, had chosen non-voting observer status.
Currently, Japan conducts what is known as "scientific whaling" which is permitted by the IWC. In all, pro-whaling states take around 2,000 whales a year.
Tokyo denies claims it bribes small states with aid, pointing out that it also supports nations which oppose whaling, such as India and Argentina.
The Japanese delegation also refused to comment on speculation that Tokyo would seek to have Greenpeace's observer status revoked over a collision between one of the group's ships and a Japanese whaling vessel in January.
At the heart of the dispute is a clash on what exactly the IWC is for.
Pro-whaling nations hark back to the original purpose of the IWC which was to ensure "proper and effective conservation and development of whale stocks."
But the anti-whale lobby says there is no place in a modern world for an organisation which promotes the killing of whales. There is also sharp division on the health of whale stocks.
Copyright © 2006 AFP