Pro-whaling nations on Tuesday blocked a near two-decade effort to create a South Atlantic haven for the endangered marine mammals, deepening divisions at an already fractious International Whaling Commission meeting in Brazil.
The South Atlantic Whale Sanctuary was backed by 39 countries with 25 voting against and several countries not casting a ballot, and so failed to get the required two-thirds majority from the 89-member body.
Brazil's Environment Minister Edson Duarte, whose country has been proposing the creation of the sanctuary since a 2001 IWC meeting, said he was disappointed but would continue to enlist support worldwide.
"As minister for the environment in a country with 20 percent of the world's biodiversity in its forests, we feel highly responsible for the stewardship of our wealth, for the whole world, and this goes for cetaceans as well," Duarte said, to applause from delegates.
Co-sponsored by Argentina, Gabon, South Africa and Uruguay, the meeting was first discussed in 1998 and voted on since the 2001 meeting of the IWC. The IWC recognizes two other sanctuaries, the Indian Ocean Sanctuary created in 1979 and another in 1994, in the waters of the Southern Ocean around Antarctica.
Pro-whaling Japan voted against the project, backed by commercial whaling states Iceland and Norway, as well as Russia. The Japanese delegation has pushed for a rule change at the biennial meetings that would allow decisions to be made by simple majority instead of the current three-quarters minimum.
This would make it easier for Japan to push through its proposal to end a 32-year moratorium on commercial whaling and re-introduce "sustainable whaling," much to the ire of nations that oppose the practice.
It would also, as Japanese foreign ministry officials pointed out at the Brazil meet, have enabled the creation of the long-envisioned sanctuary.
New Zealand's Commissioner Amy Laurenson, speaking in favor of the sanctuary, told the meeting it was about protecting whales, "not about determining the outcome for other areas of the world."
Grettel Delgadillo, of Humane Society International (HSI), said the vote was a "bitter disappointment" and "a genuine sign of bad faith and continuing intrigue by the Japan bloc, and it bodes very poorly for the crucial votes that will come later this week."
Australia won a case against Japan at the International Court of Justice in 2014 for disregarding the Southern Ocean sanctuary and hunting around Antarctica as part of its "scientific program." In the wake of the ruling, Japan continues to hunt in the Southern Ocean but with a reduced catch quota.
Six member nations did not send delegations, while seven countries that did — most of them African — have not paid their fees and were barred from voting. Observers said that for some of these smaller countries, not voting on a highly sensitive issue is a diplomatic gesture, and it is unlikely they would want to be seen in either camp.
However, some anti-whaling delegates said it showed the lack of preparation by proposing countries to let potential votes leak away due to a procedural matter, adding that Japan was altogether more efficient in preparing the political ground.
Environmental groups attending the meeting expressed bitter disappointment at the outcome.
Nicolas Entrup, of Swiss-based NGO OceanCare, pointed to an action plan to protect whales in the South Atlantic adopted unanimously by parties to the UN Convention on Migratory Species (CMS) last year. Railing against "the destructive blockade of some countries," he said CMS states should go ahead without IWC approval to form the sanctuary.
Patrick Ramage of the International Fund for Animal Welfare said "a sanctuary in this region would have provided strong protection to a wide range of whale and dolphin species." "Non-lethal whale research in this area has already provided valuable data on whales and a sanctuary would have built on this further, giving us far more useful and precise information than has ever been gained from so-called scientific whaling."
Delgadillo of the HSI said: "The nations of the region want to create — and they have every right to create — a safe haven for whales under continued threats from commercial whaling, death from entanglement in fishing gear, marine pollution and injury from ship strikes."