The collapse of international whaling negotiations at Morocco is a chilling moment for the future of controlled whaling, let alone the prospect of a complete ban. The collapse is no less disturbing for the fact that it has always been as likely as not.

The International Whaling Commission proposal to the three nations that permit commercial whaling, Japan, Norway and Iceland, never satisfied either side.

The proposal would have lifted the moratorium for 10 years on condition that Japan reduce its catch in the Southern Ocean from 500 to 400 for five years, then dropping to 200 a year.

It was a recipe for neither a sanctuary nor a commercial proposition. Foreign Minister Murray McCully observed as he arrived for the meeting that a limit of 200 might not be commercially viable.

He held the hope that it might therefore be a face-saving form of effective ban. If it offered that way out, it failed. Japan and its co-offenders plainly have no more desire to save face than save whales. They have endured international opprobrium on this subject for so long that bloody-minded pride might now be more important to its policy makers than whale meat is to its population.

With all hope of a compromise now gone, the New Zealand Government will probably join Australia in its case against Japan at the International Court of Justice.

It is not a course that promises effective policing of the Southern Ocean even if the court can be persuaded the Antarctic is a whale sanctuary in international law. Even if a favourable ruling can be obtained, the case is likely to take years and leave the ocean open to unrestricted whaling in the interim.

Not even Greenpeace and other environmental lobbies at Agidir favoured court action over a negotiated compromise. Mr McCully went out of his way to praise their helpful approach to the negotiations, an approach that helps keep non-whaling governments and most of the public firmly behind the effort to end all whaling.

It is encouraging that the collapse of the talks has not caused Japan to withdraw from the commission. It frequently threatens to leave and it is hard to know what keeps it there. But as long as it is willing to discuss catch limits, and indeed maintain the fiction that its annual harvest is for scientific research, there is hope.

The anti-whaling campaign is said to have made an impact on Japanese public opinion. Whale was once a standard part of the Japanese diet, now it is a rarity. To most Japanese it is probably not worth the cost to their international reputation.

As a Japanese in the country, Yurika Arai, wrote in the Herald this month, "Norwegians, Icelanders and Inuit eat whales too. But they are different because they hunt in their own seas. Only the Japanese come to the Antarctic Sea, the backyard of New Zealand to hunt ... Please don't ask me why."

New Zealand and Australia do the cause no good by making a nimby argument. If there is a case for a moratorium on all whale species it surely needs to apply beyond the Southern Ocean. The ocean is too vast to be credibly anyone's "backyard", and too small for the global safety of these big roving animals.

The Southern Ocean sanctuary is a tactical assertion in the campaign for a global moratorium. That is probably the reason Japanese whalers do not respect it. Antagonism and embarrassment will probably never change Japanese policy. Discussions and diplomacy might. The proposal at Morocco was a worthy attempt.

Another failure should not discourage yet another attempt. Court action is now necessary for diplomacy's credibility but the solution, if it ever happens, will come only from gentle persuasion.