The US is spearheading an attempt to limit, and possibly phase out, whale hunting by Japan, Iceland and Norway ahead of a crucial meeting of the International Whaling Commission.The proposal would allow the three countries to continue killing a smaller number of whales commercially over the next decade, with a view to ending the controversial hunts altogether, according to a report in the New York Times.The paper said that the countries would have to agree to closer monitoring of their whaling fleets, including the use of tracking devices and the presence of international observers.They would also be expected to participate in a whale DNA registry as a deterrent against illegal trade in whale meat.The newspaper cited negotiators as saying that an agreement could be reached in weeks, ahead of the IWC’s annual meeting in Morocco in June. It is not clear, however, whether its 88 members would ratify the move.The compromise, which could change dramatically in the coming weeks, would force Japan, Norway and Iceland to cut their annual whale cull by about half, a move that would spare more than 5,000 whales over the next decade.“This is one of the toughest negotiations I’ve been involved in in 38 years,” the IWC chairman, Cristian Maquieira, told the paper. “If this initiative fails now, it means going back to years of acrimony.”But campaigners said the proposal would do little to protect whales in the short term and did not compel the three countries to end whaling after 10 years.“Countries shouldn’t be looking at ways to legitimise existing loopholes in the IWC moratorium, but at closing them altogether,” Willie MacKenzie, oceans campaigner at Greenpeace UK, said.“Scientific whaling is being used to permit commercial whaling and whale sanctuaries are not being respected, so this compromise stands in the way of conservation. Governments that oppose whaling, including the UK, should be fighting just as hard as Japan to get their way.”Any proposal that would permit Japan to continue its hunts in the Antarctic is expected to be opposed by Australia and New Zealand.Australia has threatened to go to the international court of justice to end Tokyo’s “lethal research” into almost 1,000 whales every winter. Japan uses a loophole in the 1986 IWC moratorium on commercial whaling to kill whales for what it claims is vital scientific research.This week Japan’s whaling fleet returned to port with just over half its target catch after clashes with the marine conservation group Sea Shepherd.Pressure to crack down on the illegal international market in whale meat is expected to grow after a report presented evidence that meat from Japan is being served at restaurants in South Korea and the US.In the report, published yesterday in the journal Biology Letters, scientists from Oregon State University performed DNA tests on whale meat sold since 1993 and found that some of it had come from whales slaughtered during Japan’s research programme in the Antarctic.“Since the international moratorium it has been assumed that there is no international trade in whale products,” said Scott Baker, associate director of the university’s marine mammal institute. “But when products from the same whale are sold in Japan in 2007 and in Korea in 2009, it suggests that international trade, though illegal, is still an issue.”Yesterday police in the South Korean capital Seoul raided a Japanese restaurant and questioned its owner on suspicion of serving illegally imported whale meat. The study suggests that meat served last year at a restaurant in Los Angeles came from a sei whale – an endangered species – that had also been sold in Japan.