A steep rise in the number of whales being killed this year by Japan and Norway has led Britain to join an international effort to ban all high seas whaling in return for allowing coastal whaling for the first time in 11 years.
Conservationists, led by Greenpeace, are opposed in principle to coastal whaling.They want a ban on all whaling and an end to trade in whale products. "We support a global sanctuary but not coastal whaling. Whales are no respecters of territorial limits," said a Greenpeace spokesman.
The idea of a sanctuary was put forward by Ireland and amounts to a political trade off in an attempt to regain some of the killing. Norway and Japan are using a loophole in the 1986 whaling ban allowing catches for "scientific" purposes to nearly double their haul in the last four years.
There are now around 1,000 whales being killed each year, outside the control of the IWC. Eliot Morley, the agriculture minister, said the present situation is "not satisfactory" and Britain may support a shift of policy but only if it leads to "a significant, and permanent, reduction in the number of whales being killed each year".
The plan would not halt whaling by the Norwegians, who get most of their catch in coastal waters, but it would hit the Japanese who go whaling in Antartica and the North Pacific.
The environmental groups will be out in force at the IWC next week, although no decision is expected to made. Whitehall sources said a deal could be reached next year in Oman.