SANTIAGO (Reuters) - Whales emerged the big losers as a weeklong International Whaling Commission meeting wrapped up in Chile on Friday, conservation groups said after anti-whaling nations failed to halt No. 1 hunter Japan.
Anti-whale hunting nations led by Australia have voiced deep concern at Japan’s skirting a nonbinding 1986 moratorium on commercial whaling by killing hundreds of whales each year in the name of scientific research.
Japan says it is unhappy with the moratorium and wants to resume commercial whaling, though detractors say it is already doing so in all but name.
The issue has generated so much tension that IWC Chairman Bill Hogarth, seeking to avoid confrontation, set up a working group to try to build consensus over the next year.
But that step, with nations urged not to vote against each other on Japanese whaling or calls for a South Atlantic whale sanctuary, means little was achieved at the meeting, environmentalists said.
“I think it was a disappointing week for whales,” said Ralf Sonntag of the International Fund for Animal Welfare.
“Japan goes home without any votes or resolutions against it. Iceland started a new round of commercial whaling just prior to this conference. So they are not taking it very seriously. Nothing has been achieved for the whales.”
Japan gives itself a special permit to catch 1,000 whales each year despite the moratorium, while Norway and Iceland continue to hunt whales in defiance of the ban.
Aboriginals in Greenland, Russia and Alaska are granted special concessions for subsistence hunting.
Japan said it would not bow to pressure from the anti-whaling lobby and had not ruled out leaving the IWC altogether, but wanted to give dialogue a chance.
“Conservation groups might be disappointed at the meeting’s outcome, but the real negotiation has to take place between the states,” said Ryotaro Suzuki, senior coordinator of the ocean division of Japan’s Foreign Ministry.
“I’m not telling you that we’re going to stop the scientific research. All sorts of resolutions and talk about Japan-bashing in the past ... didn’t stop us,” he added. “That’s a reality, and conservation groups need to face that.”
Asked if Japan would ever consider halting whaling altogether, Suzuki said: “Yes and no.”
“We are not happy with the commercial whaling moratorium and we want the resumption of commercial whaling in a limited and sustainable way,” he said.
Australia, which strongly opposes whaling and has proposed reforms like joint nonlethal whale research with Japan and conservation management, put a brave face on the outcome.
“We would count it as having been in the main a constructive and positive engagement,” said Australian Environment Minister Peter Garrett.
“We’re opposed to commercial whaling, we think the moratorium should stay in place and we’re opposed to so-called scientific whaling in the way it is being conducted by Japan,” he said.
“There are significant potential activities that countries can engage in in terms of cetacean research and whale use which doesn’t require whales to be killed,” he added, referring to a burgeoning global whale-watching industry.
Conservation groups said they were heartened that anti-whaling nations blocked Greenland’s bid to raise its hunt quota by 10 humpback whales this year, amid claims some whale meat is being sold in Greenland supermarkets.
“The real risk of this week was that it would be business as usual at the end of the meeting, and to a certain extent that is true,” said Mick McIntyre, director of conservation group Whales Alive.
Editing by Xavier Briand