Japan and its allies on Monday shot down a Latin American proposal to create a sanctuary for whales in the southern Atlantic Ocean, reigniting international tensions over Tokyo's whaling.
The International Whaling Commission, which has long been torn by disputes, fell into familiar divisions just hours after senior officials opened the main session of their annual meeting in Panama City.
Argentina, Brazil, South Africa and Uruguay put forward a proposal to declare the southern Atlantic a no-kill zone for whales, a largely symbolic measure as no whaling takes place there now.
Thirty-eight countries voted in favor of the measure and 21 voted against, with two abstentions. Under the rules of the Commission, proposals needs to enjoy a "consensus" of 75 percent support for approval.
Jose Truda Palazzo, who spearheaded the proposal for the southern Atlantic sanctuary when he was Brazil's representative to the International Whaling Commission, blamed nations that receive Japanese aid for scuttling the proposal.
"Japan doesn't want to give an inch on anything that may compromise their ability to roam the world doing whaling as they see fit," said Palazzo, who is now at Brazil's non-governmental Cetacean Conservation Center.
"You can't really believe that Nauru or Tuvalu has an interest or has studied the sanctuary. They are voting because Japan tells them to," he said.
Japan each year kills hundreds of whales in Antarctic waters that are already considered a sanctuary, infuriating Australia and New Zealand where whale-watching is a growing industry.
Japan says it is technically abiding by a 1986 moratorium on commercial whaling set by the commission as it uses a clause that allows lethal research on the ocean giants, with the meat then going to consumption.
Japan argues that whaling is part of its culture and accuses Western nations of insensitivity. Environmentalists say that few Japanese eat whale and that the country's position is driven by its powerful fishing industry.
Norway and Iceland are the only countries that openly defy the whaling moratorium, although their hunts are confined to nearby waters.