The head of the International Whaling Commission has expressed optimism that nations gathering in Morocco next month can settle a long-running dispute over the hunting of whales.

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A senior US official, however, signalled difficult negotiations ahead over a contentious IWC proposal that would effectively allow commercial whaling for the first time in 25 years, though under strict quotas set by the commission.

The proposal is an attempt to solve a stalemate between pro- and anti-whaling countries that has lasted since a 1986 ban on commercial whaling.

Japan, Norway and Iceland, which harpoon about 2000 whales annually, argue that many species are abundant enough to continue hunting them.

They are backed by about half the IWC’s 88 member nations.

The United States, Australia and the European Union, among others, want whaling to stop or at least be reduced.

Monica Medina, the US commissioner to the IWC, told reporters at a briefing the Obama administration cannot accept the commission’s current proposal, which, she said, allows the hunting of too many whales.

But, she said, Washington is willing to continue talks to see if a stronger accord to protect whales can be settled at the IWC meeting in Morocco. Medina, who is also a principal deputy undersecretary in the Commerce Department, said: “The IWC is fundamentally broken and must be fixed.”

Negotiators recognise that whaling continues despite a moratorium; “The idea would be to cap that whaling and to get it under the IWC’s control so that it can be monitored,” she said.

The chairman of the IWC, Cristian Maquieira, said at the briefing a successful deal next month could bring international whaling under IWC control – something that’s not happening now.

“The negotiations will be very, very complicated and very, I suspect, intense, but I do look forward to a positive outcome,” Maquieira said. “I’m optimistic that we will arrive at some understanding.”

He was careful to note the IWC proposal is only meant to spur negotiations, not to be a final agreement. “Nothing is agreed until everything is agreed,” Maquieira said.

The IWC proposal seeks a compromise by allowing whaling nations to hunt without specifying whether it is for commercial or other purposes – but in lower numbers than they do now.

Environmental groups say the proposal could lead to an eventual return to the large-scale whaling of the past, which devastated many species.