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PANAMA CITY - Japan and its allies shot down a Latin American-led proposal Monday 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 officials opened the main session of their week-long 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 whaling ended there long ago.
Thirty-eight countries voted in favor of the measure and 21 voted against, with two abstentions. Under commission rules, proposals need to enjoy a "consensus" of 75 percent support for approval.
Jose Truda Palazzo, who spearheaded the proposal for the 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 Truda 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."
But environmentalists saw some silver lining, saying the proposal was enjoying growing support. At last year's meeting held on the English Channel island of Jersey, whaling nations walked out to prevent a vote on the Atlantic sanctuary.
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 lucrative industry.
Japan, whose Antarctic expeditions are routinely hindered by the militant US-based Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, says it is technically abiding by a 1986 moratorium on commercial whaling as its activities are for research.
The International Whaling Commission allows lethal science 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 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 commercial whaling moratorium, although their hunts are confined to nearby waters. The two countries also voted against the proposed Atlantic sanctuary.
China, Russia and South Korea - which all have faced friction in the past over their fishing industries - also opposed the Atlantic sanctuary.
South Korean delegate Kang Joon-Suk told the session that the International Whaling Commission needed to move beyond its divisions and support both "conservation and sustainable use" of whales.
Monaco, which despite its small size has been assertive on whale conservation, submitted a proposal that would invite the United Nations to take a role in enforcing the authority of the International Whaling Commission.
"The main problem facing this commission, in our analysis, is that its own resolutions are ignored by its members," Monaco's delegate Frederic Briand said, referring to Japan's whaling in the Antarctic sanctuary.
Japan, meanwhile, said it would seek to hold Commission meetings every other year instead of annually.
"The friction between countries that have a cultural demand (for whaling), like Japan, and nations that do not, has weakened the substance of International Whaling Commission," Takahiro Sasaki, senior vice minister of agriculture, forestry, and fisheries, told reporters before the talks.
Delegates are set Tuesday to look at new quotas by the United States, Russia, Greenland, and Saint Vincent and the Grenadines for whaling by aboriginal peoples.
Most whaling opponents do not seek to block small-scale aboriginal hunts as they do not threaten whale populations. But environmentalists have questioned the authenticity of claims by Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, a small Caribbean nation, that it has an indigenous whaling tradition.