Portorož (Slovenia) (AFP) - Whaling nations defeated a renewed bid Tuesday by southern hemisphere states to create an Atlantic sanctuary for the marine mammals hunted to near extinction in the 20th century.
A proposal by Argentina, Brazil, Gabon, South Africa and Uruguay, which needed a 75 percent majority, mustered only 38 votes in favour with 24 against at an International Whaling Commission meeting, an outcome lamented by conservationists.
Its main detractors were whalers Japan, Norway and Iceland, with backing from a number of African, Asian and island states.
"With all the problems currently facing whale populations that have previously been devastated by commercial whaling, it is clear they need a protected zone where they will be able not just to survive, but to rebuild and thrive," said Greenpeace whale expert John Frizell.
"What is the most disappointing is that all these efforts are ultimately being undermined by IWC member countries (which) are thousands of miles away, not even in the southern hemisphere and some even on the other side of the world."
The proposal, backed by countries which depend on whale-watching tourist dollars, has been shot down at every IWC meeting since it was first introduced in 2001.
"It's a disappointment that the proposal for a South Atlantic whale sanctuary has again been defeated by those nations with a vested interest in killing whales for profit," Humane Society International vice president Kitty Block said.
"The whales have lost out and so too have local communities who stand to gain so much from booming ecotourism such as responsible whale watching."
The scheme is to create a whale sanctuary of 20 million square kilometres (eight million square miles) in the South Atlantic ocean.
Backers say about 71 percent of an estimated three million whales killed around the world between 1900 and 1999 were taken in southern hemisphere waters.
- 'Some kind of security' -
The most targeted species were fin, sperm, blue, humpback, sei and minke whales, they say -- and many populations are still recovering under a 30-year old moratorium on all but aboriginal whale hunting.
According to the proposal, a sanctuary would "promote the biodiversity, conservation and non-lethal utilisation of whale resources in the South Atlantic Ocean".
But Japan, under fire for its annual whale hunts in the name of science, which critics say is a cover for commercial whaling, expressed vehement opposition.
Tokyo argues that stocks of some species have recovered sufficiently to make them fair game for hunters, and that simply declaring all whales off-limits did not address environmental imperatives.
"Sustainable use of marine living resources, including whales... is perfectly consistent with environmental protection," Japan's IWC commissioner told delegates on Monday.
"This proposal is against the principle of sustainable utilisation of marine living resources," he said of the sanctuary.
Two other sanctuaries exist today, in the Indian Ocean and the Southern Ocean -- where Japan conducts some of its hunts.
An outstanding issue on the agenda of the five-day IWC meeting, running in the Adriatic resort town of Portoroz until Friday, is a proposal by New Zealand and Australia for scientific whaling, such as Japan says it conducts, to be much more closely scrutinised.
Country representatives are trying to fine-tune the wording of a consensus document to this effect -- failing which the proposal will be put to a vote, possibly on Wednesday.
While there are no reports of hunting in the South Atlantic today, Brazil's IWC commissioner Hermano Ribeiro told AFP a sanctuary would provide "some kind of security".
"There is a whale killing and catching in the (Southern Ocean), who may tell us that if a particular species begins to be depleted the whale-catchers for science will not come to the South Atlantic?
"We want to avoid that," he said.
Whale-watching is an estimated $2 billion (1.8-billion-euro) a year industry employing some 13,000 people around the world.
There are an estimated 51 species of cetaceans -- whales, dolphins and porpoises -- in the South Atlantic.