The 57-nation International Whaling Commission is meeting in Sorrento, Italy, under pressure from a group of countries led by Japan, Norway, and Iceland to end the moratorium on commercial whaling. The number of countries in favor of lifting the ban is growing.

Until now, anti-whaling nations led by the United States, Australia, New Zealand and Britain have been the majority of the members of the International Whaling Commission. They have managed to keep an 18 year moratorium on whale hunting in place, but support to end the ban has been growing.

In his opening statement to the International Whaling Commission's four-day meeting in Sorrento, Japan commissioner Minoru Morimoto said his country had come to the end of its patience on the matter of the moratorium, and threatened to pull out of the Commission if a return to commercial whaling could not be achieved by next year.

The ban on whaling was imposed to prevent the extinction of a number of endangered species. But since its establishment in 1986, thousands of whales have continued to be killed.

Norway has ignored the ban, while Japan and Iceland's whaling fleets have been allowed annual quotas of some species for "scientific" purposes. Opponents have said this amounts to nothing but commercial whaling in disguise.

During the past decade Japan, Norway, and Iceland have made significant efforts to convince other countries to back commercial whaling. Today the 57 member International Whaling Commission appears divided down the middle between countries opposed to a resumption of commercial whaling and those backing it.

A three-quarters majority is required to overturn the moratorium and pro-whaling nations have persuaded a host of smaller nations to join their voting block. Japan has been accused by environmental groups of channeling development aid to African and Caribbean members in return for votes on the commission.

Japan, where whale meat is a favorite dish at restaurants, has also threatened to form a breakaway whaling organization if the moratorium remains.

Anti-whaling and animal welfare groups from around the world deployed a fleet of some 50 vessels off Sorrento on Sunday in a demonstration of solidarity with the world's whale population.

Organizations like Greenpeace, which led the sea demonstration, are fiercely opposed to whaling, saying it is inhumane and unnecessary. A new coalition of conservationist groups called Whalewatch will be appealing to the whaling nations to halt all killing, usually done by using exploding harpoons, on the grounds that it is too cruel.