updated 7/22/2004 3:15:20 PM ET 2004-07-22T19:15:20

The International Whaling Commission put the brakes Thursday on a plan that critics said might lead to lifting a ban on commercial whaling that has been in place for 18 years.

The commission said in a resolution approved Thursday that the plan should be a starting point for discussing whale management over the next 12 months, but a measure calling for a vote on the plan at next year’s annual IWC meeting was dropped.

The resolution was adopted after a fractious and lengthy session on the last day of the commission’s annual meeting. The initial text of the resolution was amended several times, mainly by anti-whaling countries.

U.S. commissioner to the IWC William Hogarth, one of the proponents of the original text, called the outcome a “compromise” between pro-whaling countries, led by Japan, and the anti-whaling bloc, led by New Zealand and Australia.

Activists OK with wording
Environmentalists welcomed the resolution, saying it ensures a transparent and fair process. “It is an honest way forward,” Kitty Block of Humane Society International said.

The plan that served as a basis of discussion was devised by commission chairman Henrik Fischer of Denmark. Backed by Japan, Iceland and other pro-whaling states, the plan would include a five-year phase-in period when commercial whaling would only be allowed on coastal waters. It envisioned measures to ensure whalers do not exceed quotas.

The United States had backed the proposal at Wednesday’s meeting of the International Whaling Commission but insisted it had not abandoned its traditional anti-whaling stance.

“It’s not a shift in the U.S. position,” Hogarth said earlier. “The United States is totally against commercial whaling. There’s no change in that philosophy.”

But, he added, if whaling does resume, “It’s the position of the U.S. government that we need good strong measures in place.”

Environmentalists feared the proposal could loosen a moratorium on commercial whaling in place since 1986, and some officials confirmed the plan was being considered a first step to doing away with the ban.

Despite the 1986 ban on commercial whaling, some hunting takes place under a scientific program permitted by the commission. Environmentalists and many countries say this is just commercial whaling in disguise.

The IWC has been in a stalemate in recent years, with the growing bloc of pro-whaling countries almost reaching a balance of power with anti-whaling nations.

Some officials doubted the U.S. commitment to the anti-whaling cause.

“I hope that the United States is firm in its commitment that it too does not want to see the resumption of commercial whaling,” New Zealand Conservation Minister Chris Carter told the Associated Press Television News. “The jury seems to be out on that one at the moment.”

Rationale for managing hunts
Other officials say that since whaling does occur, it would be better to have a program to control it. Many also note that if the stalemate continues, countries will act outside the IWC, and the body would become irrelevant.

Hogarth said fewer whales probably would be killed under a good management scheme than with no rules at all. He also insisted it was important the IWC remain relevant.

“These international organizations are extremely important and that’s a game that we need to be in, to play in,” he said.

Talks on a whaling management scheme have gone on for at least a decade, and Hogarth said the United States was trying to help move the process forward, he said.

“We’re in this commission and we feel like we should be fulfilling what the commission should be doing,” he said.

This year’s meeting has been marked by sharp divisions since beginning Monday.

On Wednesday, the commission passed a resolution urging nations to find more humane methods for killing whales — a victory for anti-whalers in their battle against the grenade-tipped harpoons used to kill whales.

The resolution does not ban the harpoons or impose another slaughter method, but it endorses the view that the technique can cause whales to suffer and orders the commission to research different killing methods.

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