The weather here in Panama City changes from bright sun to pouring rain without warning. It may be an omen for the International Whaling Commission (IWC) meeting which will start in a few days.

Every five years the IWC considers the issue of the so-called ‘aboriginal subsistence’ quotas for indigenous people whose whale hunts often go back hundreds or even thousands of years. This year’s IWC meeting will include these discussions.. Greenpeace has never campaigned against these quotas since it is industrialized commercial whaling which has wiped out populations of whales, not indigenous hunts, but these hunts have become a political tool for those who seek to resume commercial whaling, a chance to embarrass countries like the US which strongly opposes commercial whaling but also has a large indigenous hunt.

There is lots of potential here at the Panama IWC for stormy weather.

At last year’s IWC meeting, Japan led a walkout of 18 nations, leaving the meeting without a quorum and therefore preventing a vote on the establishment of the South Atlantic whale sanctuary. Will they do it again? Talks aimed at stopping a repeat of this won’t start until the day before the meeting.

Familiar faces are appearing around the convention centre, some from anti-whaling countries and some from the whalers and their paid supporters. But the financial crisis is affecting both sides: a quarter of the IWC’s members have failed to pay their dues and others can’t afford to come to Panama.  Many are not yet here. The numbers attending are critical, both for the quorum issue and for actual votes, but it is likely we won’t know how many are attending until the meeting opens on Monday.

The vote balance will be particularly important for the South Atlantic whale sanctuary. This new sanctuary would protect whales from the equator to the Southern Ocean whale sanctuary and would mean that whales in the South Atlantic could live their entire lives- from their Antarctic feeding grounds to their warm water calving and breeding grounds- in a protected sanctuary. But the IWC requires a ¾ majority to create this sanctuary, meaning that a single no vote cancels out 3 yes votes. Every vote will be important.

Monaco has proposed a resolution which invites the UN to consider the fact that massive unregulated catches of cetaceans (whales and dolphins) are occurring within the Southern Ocean whale sanctuary. These are conducted by Japan under a loophole in the IWC’s regulations but it would be hard for Japan to ignore UN disapproval. A resolution requires only a simple majority to pass but there are rumors that Japan would be willing to disrupt the whole meeting to stop the resolution.

Meanwhile the meeting room awaits us all. The high roof will keep us dry but so far we don’t know what storms may blow inside.

John Frizell is a Greenpeace International oceans campaigner based in the United Kingdom. He is attending IWC 64 in Panama City, which begins on 2 July.