LONDON -- The International Whaling Commission, meeting in Glasgow, Scotland, reached a contentious compromise between its pro- and anti-whaling factions yesterday as it moved closer to a resumption of commercial whaling, banned in the world's oceans since 1988.
If the moratorium is lifted, hunting likely would be allowed for the minkes -- smallest of the baleen whales -- in the North Atlantic and Antarctic oceans.
But the earliest a vote could be taken on the hunting ban is next April, when the IWC meets in Japan.
Greg Donovan, a spokesman for the IWC, said an "inspection and observation scheme would be developed this year" under which commercial whaling might be resumed.
"It certainly doesn't mean that whaling would start up this year, or probably next," he said. "But it may involve a resumption the year after.
"It will have to be agreed to at next year's meeting."
In the meantime, the whales are not entirely safe, and more than one country is sharpening its harpoons. Norway has said it would resume whaling next year. Iceland withdrew from the the IWC Monday, and though it has not said it would start whaling again, no one would be surprised if it did.
"That decision has not been made," said Helgi Agustsson, Iceland's ambassador to London. But he left the impression it would not be long in coming.
Sixteen of the 28 IWC countries represented in Glasgow voted for the resolution to set up the monitoring scheme, the framework within which catch quotas would be set. Eleven abstained.
Only Norway voted against it, wanting to end the moratorium immediately.
The resolution had been advanced as a compromise by Australia, Finland, Germany, Switzerland and the United States.
The IWC's pre-eminence in the field of whale management may be eroded by the creation of a rival bloc of whaling nations, the so-called North Atlantic Marine Mammals Commission.
The NAMMC groups Norway, Iceland, Greenland and the Faroe Islands, all traditional whaling lands. Japan, one of the countries most ea
ger to see an end to the moratorium on whaling, has been invited to attend the next meeting of NAMMC, and there are fears it might join.
Japan is the only IWC country that has continued to take about 300 whales a year, mostly in Antarctic waters. It is allowed to do this under a provision in the original document that established the IWC.
Tokyo says it takes the whales for "scientific purposes," but environmental organizations such as Greenpeace say that the Japanese do it because whale meat fetches about $220 a pound in Tokyo restaurants.
The approved compromise uses a mathematical formula aimed at safeguarding whale stocks while allowing some commercial whaling in the Antarctic Ocean and possibly in the North Atlantic.
The minkes, which are 20 to 30 feet long, were almost wiped out in the 1960s, but have since multiplied. Experts estimate some 114,000 are in the North Atlantic, and about 760,000 in the Antarctic. The average minke is worth about $50,000 on the commercial market.
The numbers of great whales -- such as the blue, sperm and humpback -- are much smaller, and they would continue to be protected as endangered species.
A French proposal to turn the southern oceans below the 40th parallel into a whale sanctuary was rejected earlier this week. It will be advanced again at the meeting in April.
Greenpeace put a positive interpretation on the conference, pointing to the fact that the moratorium survived, at least for now.
"We were really worried at the beginning of the week that catch limits would be rushed through," said Kieran Mulvaney, a Greenpeace spokesman. "We are really pleased now."
He also expressed optimism about the sanctuary proposal when it comes up for a vote in Tokyo.