The International Whaling Commission’s (IWC) annual meeting has closed after a tense final day when relations between opposing blocs came close to collapse.

Latin American nations attempted to force a vote on a proposal to create a whale sanctuary in the South Atlantic.

Pro-whaling countries walked out, but eventually it was decided to shelve any vote until next year’s meeting.

Environment groups said the delays and wrangling meant important issues for whale conservation were neglected.

But a number of nations pledged new funding for research on small cetaceans, some of which are severely threatened.

Earlier in the meeting, governments agreed new regulations designed to prevent “cash for votes” scandals that have plagued the IWC in the past, and passed a resolution censuring the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society for putting safety at risk during its annual missions to counter Japanese whalers in the Southern Ocean.

But the sanctuary issue threatened to derail the entire session.

“Whale species and populations from the Southern Atlantic oceanic basin were amongst the ones that suffered the most due to commercial whaling on a large scale,” Roxana Schteinbarg, from the Argentina-based Institute for the Conservation of Whales, told delegates.

“Fifty-four species live in the waters where the sanctuary is proposed – it is therefore appropriate that the protection of these species in the Southern Ocean Sanctuary be extended and complemented in the reproduction areas in the Atlantic Southern basin.”

The 14-strong Buenos Aires bloc of nations knew it did not command the three-quarters majority needed to win, but remained determined to put it to the test.

“We didn’t come here to win the sanctuary on the vote, but we wanted to put it to a vote – we believe our conservation agenda cannot be put forward, be stressed, be highlighted, be defended in some issues without a vote,” said Brazil’s commissioner Marcus Henrique Paranagua.

“Why not vote on things that are controversial?”

Delegates from pro-whaling countries walked out in protest when a vote was called

The pro-whaling bloc said this could herald a return to the fractious days of the past, and walked out in an attempt to bring the meeting below the quorum needed for votes to count.

“We fear that the fact of voting will probably damage the very good atmosphere we have established, and might trigger a landslide of many votes for next year which might disrupt the progress we have made,” said Japan’s alternate (or deputy) commissioner Joji Morishita.

“This was not a hostile move to the Latin American countries – our effort is to try to save this organisation, and it turned out ok.”

The good atmosphere, he added, had survived a “very difficult day”.

Critics, however, said the pro-whaling countries had tried to hold the commission to ransom by their walkout.

The compromise eventually hammered out, after private discussions lasting nearly nine hours, asks countries to strive to reach consensus during the coming year.

If that proves impossible, next year’s meeting will start with a vote on the South Atlantic Sanctuary.

That could prove a particular concern for the US, which will be aiming at that meeting, in Panama, to secure renewed quotas for its indigenous hunters.

US commissioner Monica Medina agreed the potential vote “put a hand-grenade” under next year’s meeting.

“I’m more than a little concerned – we’ve made good progress on improving the IWC’s governance and that’s a good thing,” she said.

“But as long as we choose to continue fighting, all of the IWC’s members will lose; and the world’s whales deserve better.”

The US played a leading role in the two-year “peace process” that attempted to build a major compromise deal between the various parties, and which collapsed at last year’s meeting.

Huge delays during the four days of talks meant that many items on the agenda pertinent to the health of whales and other cetaceans did not get discussed.

How to prevent whales from being killed by collisions with ships, how to reduce floating debris and how to tackle the growth of noise in the oceans were among the issues that received no discussion.

“Acrimony is often the enemy of conservation – in this case, it meant that a critical meeting on whales failed to address the greatest threats they face,” said Wendy Elliott, head of environment group WWF’s delegation.

“Several whale and dolphin species are in crisis – teetering on the brink of extinction – and conservation must be front and foremost at next year’s IWC meeting, for the sake of the whales and the commission.”

The research programmes of the cash-strapped commission received something of a boost with France, Italy and several non-governmental groups pledging a total of about £80,000 ($130,000) for small cetaceans, which include the critically endangered Mexican vaquita.

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