AGADIR, Morocco More whales are being killed by chemical and noise pollution, entanglement in nets, climate change or collisions with ships than by whaling itself, delegates to the world's main whaling body said this week.
Harpooning whales for their meat and oil pushed many species close to extinction in the last century. Stocks have begun to recover under a moratorium on whaling agreed in 1986, although Japan, Norway and Iceland still hunt the giant mammals.
But climate change now means it is harder for whales to find food, ship collisions are growing, pollution is disrupting their reproduction, and fishing nets can kill or wound them, according to delegates at the International Whaling Commission's (IWC) annual meeting in the Moroccan Atlantic city of Agadir.
"If you put all these threats together, whaling pales in comparison," U.S. IWC Commissioner Monica Medina told Reuters. "These issues are so much more problematic and we really need to change the focus of the Commission onto these things."
A proposal to replace the whaling moratorium with a limited cull failed at the IWC meeting because it was opposed by many anti-whaling nations as well as by Japan, which refused to stop hunting for whales in the southern ocean.
It was seen as the best chance in years for the 88-member IWC to resolve a deadlock that some experts say has diverted energy from other threats to whale conservation.
Marine wildlife experts say growing numbers of whales succumb to "by-catch" -- getting entangled in nets or hooked to fishing lines stretching up to 10 kilometers (6 miles) and known by green campaigners as "curtains of death."
Many of the whales which escape succumb to their injuries months or years later.
Their ability to breed and navigate over huge distances is being disrupted as sonar used for secret military purposes or oil and gas exploration drowns out their calls or deafens them.
Whaling countries say the IWC could be doing a lot more to stop whales being scooped up accidentally by ensuring nets have big holes at their top and can reflect whale navigation sonar. Hooked lines can carry devices to emit warning sounds.
"I think that ... the IWC could at least be more interested in the problem of entanglement and by-catch and be more serious in discussing it," said Lars Walloe, scientific adviser to the government of Norway, one of three remaining whaling nations.
For some observers, the failure of the talks exposed growing contradictions in the IWC, which has no power of enforcement.
Critics say it has failed to stop Japan in particular getting around the moratorium by saying it hunts for research -- even though much of the meat ends up on dinner plates -- and that it has also not tackled the other threats to whales.
"Accidental catches and scientific permits have killed more than 10,000 whales since the moratorium was put in place. What kind of a moratorium is that?" said Monaco IWC Commissioner Frederic Briand.
Nick Gales, who heads Australia's delegation at meetings of the IWC's Scientific Committee, said the organization was already changing, with or without reform.
"A few years ago we were talking about the importance of by-catch and climate change but were entirely embroiled in should you whale or not whale," Gales told Reuters.
"The whaling thing carries on, but there is now huge momentum behind these other things."
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(Editing by Alex Lawler)