The International Whaling Commission has opened its annual meeting under the threat of a Japanese walkout if the group adopts a measure to improve protection of whales. Anti-whaling countries at the gathering in Berlin have already won an early battle against pro-whaling nations like Japan.

At stake is a proposal aimed at beefing up the protection of whales and reinforcing an international ban against whaling. It is called the Berlin initiative and is supported by the United States, most European Union nations and such countries as Mexico, Argentina, Brazil, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa.

Japan, Norway and Iceland tried to remove the initiative from the conference's agenda but failed. They claim the measure is aimed at eventually eliminating whale hunting, which they assert is a centuries-old tradition among members of their coastal communities and, also, important for scientific research.

As she opened the conference, Germany's agriculture minister, Renate Kuenast, urged delegates to help protect whales and dolphins for future generations. She says that once people used to be afraid of nature, now they are afraid for nature.

The Berlin initiative, sponsored by 18 of the International Whaling Commission's 50 members, calls for the organization to set up a conservation panel that could recommend protective measures against such dangers as marine mammals being caught up in fishing nets, toxins in the oceans, or the use of sonar - all of which, environmentalists say, threaten whales with extinction.

But Japan, Norway and Iceland, supported by some African and Caribbean countries, strongly oppose the idea.

The International Whaling Commission imposed a moratorium on commercial whaling in 1986. Norway has simply ignored the ban. Japan has secured itself an exemption to conduct what Japanese officials call research hunts that help gauge the impact of whale herds on fisheries stocks and provide data on their migration patterns. But environmentalists say the research hunts kill hundreds of whales every year.

Critics say the Japanese program is commercial whaling in disguise because the meat from the slaughtered whales ends up in Japanese restaurants, where it is considered a delicacy.

Iceland is seeking the same kind of exemption as that enjoyed by Japan.

If the anti-whaling forces have their way, Japan has threatened to stop its payments to the organization or simply walk out. For its part, Iceland says it will resume hunting whales commercially if the Berlin initiative is approved.