While the ban remains in effect, Japan, Norway, Iceland, and Greenland continue to hunt limited numbers of whales. The mammals are killed either for local consumption or scientific purposes.
Since 1994 the IWC has sought to negotiate a sustainable commercial whaling strategy to replace the ban.
Pro-whaling nations say it's time for their proposal, known as the Revised Management Scheme (RMS), to be implemented. Japan has threatened to quit the IWC if the plan isn't adopted.
Anti-whaling groups, such as the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society based in Chippenham, England, oppose the RMS. Groups say the scheme wouldn't detect, prevent, or penalize whaling violations and would jeopardize endangered whale populations.
"Those that believe whaling can be brought under control have had their eyes closed to the past century," said Niki Entrup of the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society.
Entrup added that the whaling that has occurred, despite the current moratorium, shows that countries like Japan do not respect the decisions of the IWC.
Currently Japan kills about 400 whales a year under the rubric of scientific research. Such programs don't fall within IWC jurisdiction.
Norway has also set a quota to kill nearly 800 minke whales this summer. The nation is also considering scientific whaling of other species in future.
Wildlife groups say most of the whales hunted under the aegis of scientific research end up being sold as food. Conservationists add that researchers don't need to kill a whale to study it.
Non-lethal biopsy darts can potentially tell researchers as much about a whale's age, sex, diet, reproductive status, and genetics as a carcass can, argues Sue Lieberman, director the global species program for the conservation nonprofit the World Wildlife Fund.
"I think what this is about is the commercial market for whale meat in Japan," she said.
However, Japan argues that a total ban on commercial hunting is no longer justified. The nation says whale populations have recovered in the past two decades and that sustainable harvests are now possible.
Japan notes that the IWC's scientific committee agrees that humpback whale numbers are increasing by around 10 percent each year. The committee's most recent estimate also suggests that as many as a million minke whales live around Antarctica alone.
Surveys by the North Atlantic Marine Mammal Commission, based in Tromso, Norway, suggest minke whale numbers are either stable or increasing in all areas of the North Atlantic. The commission says current whaling quotas present no threat to the species.
Joji Morishita, head of the Japanese IWC delegation, says the Revised Management Scheme, together with monitoring and inspection, would ensure regulated, sustainable whaling. "Science and law should prevail over emotions," he said.
Japan's Fisheries Ministry accuses nations opposed to any commercial whaling of "cultural imperialism." Officials ask how Australia and the United States would take to being told they couldn't hunt kangaroos or deer.
As a cheap source of protein, whale meat became a staple in Japan after World War II. Authorities are currently promoting whale meat to younger generations who are more used to Western-style foods.
In the western coastal region of Wakayama, Japan, around 280 schools are being supplied with whale meat. Education officials say they are trying to rekindle a centuries-old culinary tradition. And this week a Japanese fast-food chain, Lucky Pierrot, announced that it's putting whale burgers on its menus.
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