Representatives of 88 countries gathered Monday in the Moroccan seaside resort of Agadir for the annual meeting of the International Whaling Commission (IWC), which was to debate new proposals to reduce whale hunting over the coming decade.

A moratorium has been in place on commercial whaling since 1986, but three countries circumvent it. Japan claims to whale for scientific purposes, while Norway and Iceland claim controversial special rights.

A proposal tabled by IWC chairman Cristian Maquieira would re-legalise commercial whaling in exchange for the three countries cutting down on the number of whales they capture over the coming decade. International trade in whale meat would remain banned.

“The aim would be to reduce the current wildcat hunting of up to 2,000 whales annually,” a source of the Moroccan Fisheries Ministry said.

Advocates of the new proposal say it would save thousands of whales over a decade, bringing whaling under control instead of allowing Japan, Norway and Iceland to set their own quotas unilaterally.

The IWC would set quotas for individual whale species, allowing it to protect endangered species, the Moroccan source explained.

However, the three whaling countries regard the proposal as too restrictive, while a group of heavyweight anti—whaling countries — Australia, France, Germany and Britain — feel it does not provide a sufficient basis for protecting whales.

“The document has some useful elements, but it is not acceptable to us as such,” said Gert Lindemann, leader of the German delegation.

The proposal would allow Japan to hunt even in the Southern Ocean, in a whale sanctuary, he complained. “Whaling must also be reduced more than is being planned, and commercial hunting must end entirely,” Mr. Lindemann said.

The Moroccan source, however, was hopeful that an agreement might be reached during the five-day meeting. “This has been under discussion for years, and environmentalists are largely in favour of the proposal,” he said.

The 1986 moratorium halted the killing of tens of thousands of whales annually. Nevertheless, about 35,000 whales have been hunted down since the moratorium was imposed, according to environmentalists.