A stormy meeting saw Iceland walk out of this year’s International Whaling Commission in Shinmonoseki, Japan, on Tuesday.
The world's largest living animal - and in danger of extinction
The controversy came to a head, when a delegation from Iceland walked out of the annual meeting of the International Whaling Commission, after its application for membership was rejected in the second year running.
Iceland, which has been a non-voting observer since its delegates walked out of a meeting 10 years ago to protest against the IWC’s anti-whaling stance, wanted to join the commission while reserving the right to ignore the moratium which was signed 15 years ago.
Iceland's Whaling Commissioner Stefan Asmundsson bitterly criticised the IWC’s vote, raising questions as to the point of the commission, and accusing it of acting illegally.
"We can’t sit here and appear to be a party to this illegal act", he said before walking out on the conference.
The controversy underlines the ever-deepening rifts characterizing the commission since its establishment 56 years ago.
Japan has been leading the drive for the resumption of commercial whaling, which was banned in 1986.
Like Iceland, Japan believes that abundant whale species are consuming its fish stocks and should be hunted within designated limits. The US has said this is wrong, and has accused Japan of attempting to use the whale as a scapegoat for over-fishing.
In addition, the pro-whaling lobby, including Japan, Iceland, and Norway say certain species of whale are no longer endangered, and can be hunted within limits.
The anti-whaling lobby, including the UK, Australia, New Zealand, and Germany, argue that whaling is cruel and unnecessary. The only whaling allowed under the moratorium is subsistence hunting - the catching of whales by indigenous people for local consumption - in small communities in the Artic and the Caribbean.
On the brink of extinction
Modern whaling methods, including the exploding harpoon, have brought 8 of 10 whale species to the brink of extinction. The Blue Whale of the southern oceans, the largest living creature on earth, numbers a mere 1,000.
There are currently two whale sanctuaries - in the Indian Ocean and the Southern Ocean - where no whaling is permitted, even for scientific research.
Calls for the creation of two further sanctions were ruled out on Tuesday, when delegates attending the IWC voted down the proposal.
Greepeace has called the vote a "disappointment for whale conservation", but also noted that the votes exposed a weakness in the Caribbean bloc.
Japan has secured the help of eleven nations, including six East Caribbean states, at the IWC by offering them fisherie's aid in exchange for supporting Japan's whaling policies.
All of these countries regularly attend IWC meetings and speak in favour of a resumption of commercial whaling, voting with Japan on all occasions.
But this time, St Vincent and the Grenadines found their own voice and supported the sanctuary proposals by abstaining rather than voting with Japan.
One step forward, two steps back
However, Tuesday’s vote to reject Iceland was a blow to conservationists, which had hopes set on expanding whale protection to more countries. Iceland's refusal to budge on the topic represented an unexpected victory for the anti-whaling camp.
Iceland’s exclusion is the latest in an increasing rift bteeen the two sides in the IWC. Unless they meet an agreement soon, whales may well be in danger of losing any future protection at all.