Pro- and anti-whaling nations locked horns Monday as the International Whaling Commission (IWC) began meeting in Brazil amid outrage over Japan's proposal to end a three-decade moratorium on commercial whale hunting.
Brazil's Environment Minister Edson Duarte told the opening session it was "time for progress, not setbacks," reminding delegates of their "duty to give definitive direction to the conservation of cetaceans."
Incoming IWC chairman Joji Morishita said the meeting could determine the future of the 89-member intergovernmental body, torn for years by nagging disputes between conservationists and whalers.
Morishita told AFP he wants to "change the paradigm to mutual respect from mutual denial," so the IWC can develop "rather than just fighting with each other."
But the sides appeared as far apart as ever on the emotive issue of whale hunting as the weeklong meeting got underway in the surfers' paradise of Florianopolis.
With whales breaching and spouting huge plumes of misty air in Florianopolis Bay – clearly visible from delegates' hotels – host country Brazil and Japan are proposing two diametrically opposed visions of how to manage them.
Japan is presenting a "Way Forward" document that would create a "Sustainable Whaling Committee" for nations wishing to allow their nationals to hunt healthy whale populations for commercial purposes.
Anti-whaling members like Australia, the European Union and New Zealand have vowed to block them.
Brazil is trying to rally anti-whaling nations behind a "Florianopolis Declaration" that insists commercial whaling is no longer a necessary economic activity and would allow the recovery of all whale populations to pre-industrial whaling levels.
The Brazilian minister said his country was proposing to create a South Atlantic Whale Sanctuary, with partners including Argentina, Gabon, South Africa and Uruguay. Previous attempts to introduce a sanctuary in the South Atlantic were defeated by pro-whaling nations.
"We have a duty to give definitive direction to the conservation of cetaceans," Duarte told the meeting. "Future generations have the right to know and live in with these beautiful mammals that this Commission deals with in its natural habitats. If future generations have this inalienable right, the present generations have an obligation to assure them the enjoyment of this right."
Other key issues being discussed in the meeting are risks to whales of human-made underwater noise pollution, ship strikes, climate change and "ghost-gear" entanglement – where whales are increasingly snared by abandoned fishing gear.
Moratorium still in place
The moratorium – agreed in 1986 amid fears that some species were becoming extinct – is still in place, with some exceptions.
Iceland and Norway are the only countries that allow commercial whaling and are likely to come under renewed pressure at the IWC meeting, which runs until Friday.
Japan formally observes the moratorium but exploits a "scientific research" loophole to kill hundreds of the animals every year, despite international criticism.
"Japan's 'way forward' proposal is procedurally unsound and would take the International Whaling Commission back to the days when it presided over unsustainable whaling operations," said Leigh Henry, the World Wildlife Fund's (WWF) head of wildlife policy in the US.
Tokyo has regularly sought an easing of the IWC's prohibition on commercial whaling, and is pushing hard for a rule change that would allow decisions to be made by simple majority vote instead of the current three-quarters majority.
"The reform proposals are aimed at making the IWC capable again of making decisions as a resources-managing body, and we believe it would be in the interests of all members including anti-whaling nations," Japanese government spokesman Yoshihide Suga told reporters in Tokyo.
"Our country hopes that the reforms will be supported, that the IWC will be functional again as a resources-management organization and that commercial whaling will be resumed. We will make utmost efforts," the chief cabinet secretary said.
In another category of exemption, aboriginal subsistence hunting is allowed in several countries, including Greenland, Russia, the United States and Saint Vincent and the Grenadines.
Conservation groups are opposed to a proposal before the IWC to increase annual whale kill quotas for these countries, and automatic renewal of quotas every six years, without consulting the IWC's scientific committee.