FUNCHAL, Portugal - The organisation that regulates world whaling opened a crucial conference with leaders seeking to avoid a disastrous split over hunting the marine mammals.
The International Whaling Commission (IWC) conference on the Portuguese island of Madeira faces demands to resume the hunting of whales, protected by a moratorium dating back to 1986 with some exceptions limited by quota.
But environmentalists want the IWC with 85 member states to fend off intense lobbying from states with commercial interests, amid a new attempt to find a compromise on the issue after years of deadlock.
Regardless of the moratorium, almost 40,000 whales have been killed worldwide since 1985 by countries which refuse to sign up to the IWC treaty, arguing they are conducting scientific or "lethal" research, or simply maintaining "aboriginal" (subsistence) fishing.
IWC head William Hogarth told journalists he hoped to see the conference agree to extend talks begun by a panel in 2008 for another year -- but they could not go on longer, he warned.
"I don't think that people are willing to wait more than one year," he said. "If we don't have answers by 2010, I think a lot of countries will be looking for another way to solve this."
The working party set up, at the last conference in Santiago, was charged with drawing up an interim deal on the most urgent disputes -- including the definition of "lethal research."
Hogarth said the main stumbling block was his proposal to let Japan resume commercial whaling off its coast in exchange for a cut in its so-called scientific whaling in the Antarctic.
Australia and Japan, arch foes on whaling, have both publicly rejected the compromise.
A member of Japan's delegation spoke in favour of another year's extension to the negotiations.
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"We hope that we will reach a consensus within the IWC to continue our efforts for one more year" to reach a deal "for the normalisation of the IWC," said Japanese lawmaker Yoshimasa Hayashi.
Japan, which says whaling is part of its culture, kills more than 1,000 whales a year through a loophole in the treaty that allows the ocean giants to be killed for research, although the meat still ends up on dinner tables.
Environmental groups seeking to end commercial and scientific research whaling also raised health concerns claiming whale meat is loaded with contaminants from PCBS to dioxin, according to a report by anti-whaling activists Blue Voice.
"Most dolphin, sperm whales and porpoises swimming in our oceans today are swimming toxic dumpsites, their meat and blubber so highly contaminated that it exceeds levels considered safe for human consumption," said biologist Roger Payne, founder of Ocean Alliance.
While Norway and Iceland defy the moratorium altogether, Japan's whaling is especially controversial as much of the hunt takes place in the Antarctic Ocean despite protests by Australia and New Zealand and harassment by eco-militants.
Hogarth, who is also the US delegate to the IWC, is heading his last IWC conference after a three-year term.
He has warned that global whale stocks are "in bad shape." But he says anti-whaling nations should set a more realistic goal of limiting rather than ending Japan's catch.
Greenpeace however charged that the IWC needed to transform itself from a body that "attempts to manage whales for the benefit of the whaling industry, to an organisation that seeks to conserve and protect cetaceans worldwide."
Iceland, looking to join the European Union, has significantly raised its self-imposed quotas for this year in a move condemned by countries including Britain, France, Germany and the United States.
Greenland also plans to increase its permitted quotas for humpback subsistence whaling, which has drawn protests from the World Society for the Protection of Animals (WSPA) seeking to protect the rare species.