Talks on replacing a moratorium on whaling with a controlled cull have broken down and will likely be suspended for a year, delegates at a meeting of the International Whaling Commission (IWC) said on Wednesday.
Negotiators in the Moroccan city of Agadir said the latest proposal aimed at breaking a long-running deadlock over the emotive issue of whaling failed because whaling countries and their opponents could not find enough common ground.
The moratorium was introduced 24 years ago to arrest a sharp decline in whale numbers, but Japan, Norway and Iceland have caught thousands of whales since the 1980s, arguing they are not bound by a total ban despite international condemnation.
The compromise put forward by the IWC's Chilean chairman and his deputy would have lifted the moratorium for 10 years but imposed strict controls on the limited whaling allowed.
It was seen as the best chance in years to bring whaling nations back into line with the IWC's agenda.
"This means these talks are finished," said Sue Lieberman, who was heading the delegation of the anti-whaling Pew Environment Group at the talks. "There is now a risk that there could be an increase in whaling by Japan."
Some delegates said the talks failed because Japan had agreed to reduce its annual cull but refused to stop hunting in the southern ocean, where four fifths of whales go to feed.
But many anti-whaling nations refused to consider a deal that would end the moratorium.
"I am very pleased that this morning it's now clear and confirmed that the commission won't be ... opening up the prospect of commercial whaling in the future," said Australian Environment Minister Peter Garrett.
One Japanese delegate told Reuters that a failure to agree on the southern ocean whale sanctuary had caused the breakdown in talks, but said Japan was not to blame.
"I don't think it's an appropriate manner to discuss only one component -- we have to have a package," said Hideki Moronuki, an assistant director at Japan's Fisheries Agency. "We are not talking only about the issue of the southern ocean. We are discussing the future of this organisation."
Hunting brought some species such as the blue, the humpback and the right whale close to extinction and numbers are only now recovering thanks to the moratorium, environmental groups say.
Those anti-whaling countries who agreed to discuss the proposal said Japan must respect the southern ocean whale sanctuary for them to agree to lift the moratorium and allow a better monitored and controlled cull elsewhere.
Some environmental groups had given qualified support for the proposal, saying that if it was not possible for now to stop all whaling, at least it should be limited.
But it was opposed by supporters of whaling who said it amounted to a back-door ban, and by anti-whaling campaigners who described it as a sell-out to the whaling lobby.
"The international community condemns commercial whaling," said Niki Entrup of the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society. "Anti-whaling countries should be proud of what they achieved because they were sticking to their principles."
Some delegates said talks on proposed changes had been put on hold until the next IWC session.
"It seems this means that there is going to be a one-year break in negotiations," said Uruguayan delegate Gaston Lasarte.
The IWC's decision-making has become more cumbersome as its membership more than doubled since 2001 to 88 nations. Whaling and anti-whaling nations accuse each other of enticing smaller states to join and vote for their point of view.
Questions were asked about whether the IWC, established in 1946 to promote sustainable whaling, can continue functioning in its current form as popular opposition to whaling has grown.
"It's clear the IWC needs to consider the reform of its governance," said Garrett.