IT WAS the ban that symbolised the world's acceptance of the damage it was doing to the natural world. But 20 years after the environmental movement won one of its greatest victories, campaigners may soon have to dust down their old protest banners.
Pro-whaling countries, led by Japan, are confident they have enough votes to win control of the 66-nation International Whaling Commission for the first time at its annual meeting, which starts in the Caribbean this week.
As the IWC controls the moratorium, that will pave the way for the ban to be lifted. Under the current system, voting is open so that each member country knows how other nations voted. But the Japanese and their growing band of allies are expected to force through a new secret ballot system that will conceal nations' identities.
Once in place, the majority required to overturn the ban is expected to surface and the world's largest mammals will become legitimate targets again.
Chris Carter, the conservation minister of New Zealand, one of the leading anti-whaling countries, said the numbers at this year's IWC meeting were very "finely balanced. It looks increasingly likely that the pro-whaling nations will achieve a majority on the commission for the first time".
John Frizell, chairman of the whale group of the Wildlife and Countryside Link, an alliance of leading British green organisations, said: "Thousands of whales could face an unnecessary death from harpoons if Japan and the other whaling nations get their way at this year's IWC."
Frizell said the Link had written to Prime Minister Tony Blair urging the British government to "step up UK diplomatic pressure to halt Japan's attempts to overwhelm an international conservation treaty and facilitate the resumption of commercial whaling for the first time in two decades.
"It is now clear that only high-level diplomatic action can counter the very real threat posed to the world's remaining whale populations."
More than two million whales of all types were slaughtered for their oil in the southern hemisphere between 1904 and 1986. Although hunting virtually ceased in the early years of the ban, around 2,000, mainly minke, whales are currently being killed under a "scientific" loophole.
Of the three countries that have consistently flouted the ban, Japan has been the most aggressive in using its financial and diplomatic muscle to lobby for a return of commercial whale hunting.
Its government-backed Fisheries Agency operates a "vote consolidation programme", which targets fisheries aid to poorer countries in return for their votes at the IWC.
Over the past six years, at least 14 countries have been recruited to the IWC as Japan's supporters - three during the past year. Some of these countries have no whaling traditions, and two, Mongolia and Mali, do not even have a coastline.
Japan has been particularly active among small island nations in the South Pacific and the Caribbean, which have fledgling fishing industries in need of financial support. New Zealand's whaling commissioner, Sir Geoffrey Palmer, says the numbers joining the IWC in recent years have been "two to one" in favour of pro-whaling states, and that "the Pacific has been turning against us".
Six Caribbean countries, including St Kitts and Nevis, where the IWC meeting will be held, will vote with Japan over the next three weeks. St Kitts and Nevis alone has received $24m (12.7m) for fisheries development. Along with the other Caribbean countries, it can also expect to be given a whaling quota, which it can sell to whale-hunting countries.
The St Kitts meeting is expected to be the most vitriolic for years. Japan lost potentially groundbreaking decisions by only four votes a year ago in Korea.
Australia's environment minister Ian Campbell, who heads the IWC's anti-whaling faction, says that if Japan achieves a majority, the first step of the pro-whaling faction will be to disband the IWC's conservation committee. It will then overturn the commission's formal condemnation of Japan's so-called scientific whaling programme, which exploits the loophole in the moratorium to hunt for whales.
"It would effectively reverse the conservation direction the IWC has taken in recent years and take it back to its original set-up as a pro-whaling programme," Campbell said.
The pro-whaling group will then push for the secret ballot system, which will make it far easier to obtain the three-quarters majority it needs to overturn the moratorium.
Now pro-conservation countries, led by the so-called "like-minded" group of Australia, New Zealand, the US and Britain, have launched their own diplomatic effort. But it looks like they have left it too late.
Carter visited the South Pacific last week to lobby against whaling. He praised Kiribati (formerly the Gilbert Islands) for creating the third largest marine protected area in the world, and said New Zealand would offer a training and survey programme.
However, he failed to persuade the archipelago of Tuvalu to vote with the conservation camp, despite the fact that both New Zealand and Australia give it regular aid.
A Tuvaluan government official said: "Tuvalu should be allowed, as a sovereign nation, to make its independent decision on what is best for its people. We are for the sustainable use of whatever resources we have - be it whales, fish, forestry or land."
The whaling issue has even raised hackles between Norway and its traditional allies. Ambassadors from 12 anti-whaling countries, including Britain, have accused Norway of endangering minke whales.
Norway, the only country in the world to defy the moratorium openly, sets its own quotas based on what it insists is scientific evidence of sustainable whaling. It has set a quota of 1,052 minke whales for the 2006 season - an increase of over 300 whales from last year.
Japan kills nearly 900 whales a year, mostly minkes, under its "scientific research" programme, even though most of the animals end up on Japanese dinner tables. Iceland also operates a scientific whaling fleet.
Environmental groups, including Greenpeace, which dogs the whaling fleets, are gearing up for battle. Heather Rockwell, a board member of the Cetacean Society International, says that once in control, the pro-whaling majority will immediately begin to chip away at the safeguards against commercial hunting.
Already Japan is stepping up its defiance by launching a campaign to re-establish whale meat, now largely confined to specialist restaurants, within the mainstream Japanese diet. A new whale meat trading company, formed at the beginning of this month and affiliated to the government, is to sell 1,000 tonnes of whale meat at cheap prices to schools, hospitals and restaurants.
Hideki Moronuki, head of the agency's whaling section, says: "As whale meat is full of protein and low-fat - good traits for health - the new sales company is targeting hospitals as one of its consumers. We hope that whale meat will be enjoyed by as many people as possible at much cheaper prices."
Japan's ambassador to Australia, Hideaki Ueda, said last week that he hoped that the IWC would soon allow a return to commercial whaling. "If particular species are in danger of extinction we have to take care of them," he said, but argued that the minke whale - and even the far larger hump-backs, of which Japan intends to harvest 50 a year, were far from endangered.
PURSUED THROUGH HISTORY
THE British were not always so sentimental about whales. Fleets were dispatched to waters off Greenland, the South Atlantic and the Pacific to bring back the valuable oil.
In the 19th century, Dundee had a 16-ship whaling fleet bringing in up to 150,000 a year. The industry was a major contributor to the city's wealth, with whale oil mixed with water being used to soften jute so it could be woven.
Some scientists argue that existing populations face more danger from shipping, chemical pollution, climate change and depleted food supplies than from hunting. Others claim that if the ban is lifted, reduced populations will become even more vulnerable to man-made perils.
The population of the right whale is estimated at only 500 in the northern hemisphere, and is unlikely to survive the century. A population of around 7,500 exists in the southern hemisphere.
Heavily exploited in the 1960s and 1970s as other stocks declined. In the North Pacific, populations were slashed by four-fifths to just over 2,000.
Some pre-hunting estimates put numbers at 360,000, but they are down to 56,000 now.
Pre-hunt stocks are estimated at 240,000, but more than a century of slaughter has reduced that to around 10,000.
North Atlantic estimates of the species most common in Scottish waters are a pre-hunt 265,000 - down to 149,000 now.
These giants were hunted almost to extinction in the early 20th century. Numbers have recovered to around 10,000 after protection began in 1966.
Highly prized for their huge oil reservoirs, whaling reduced numbers from more than one million to around 350,000.