The environment movement suffered one of its greatest reverses late last night when pro-whaling countries, led by Japan, gained control of the International Whaling Commission (IWC) and immediately began undermining the 20-year-old international whaling moratorium.
In a stunning diplomatic coup, Japan and its allies, including Norway and Iceland, won a voting majority in the IWC for the first time, as a result of a remorseless 10-year Japanese campaign to secure the votes of small African and Caribbean countries in exchange for multimillion-dollar foreign aid packages.
At the IWC meeting at St Kitts and Nevis in the West Indies, the pro-whalers scraped home on a catch-all resolution that condemned the moratorium as invalid, blamed whales for depleting the fish stocks of poor countries, and attacked environmental pressure groups campaigning against whaling such as Greenpeace.
The vote on the so-called "St Kitts and Nevis Declaration" was won by 33 votes to 32, with one nation - China - abstaining. The Japanese had been widely expected to achieve a majority in the meeting after bringing three new states into the IWC this year to vote on their side - Cambodia, the Marshall Islands and Guatemala - but they had lost four earlier votes by narrow margins.
Yet that does not matter now. The simple 51 per cent majority they have now secured will not allow them to scrap the moratorium directly - for that they need a majority of 75 per cent. But for them it is an enormous moral victory, and its significance was immediately realised by opponents and supporters of whaling alike.
"The conservation of the world's whales has taken a huge blow today," said a spokesman for the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society. "The ban on commercial whaling, brought into effect 20 years ago by the IWC to save whales decimated by decades of unregulated and unsustainable whaling, is now dangerously close to being overturned.
"With Japan and other pro-whaling nations now holding the majority of votes, the IWC will be driven to abandon its conservation and welfare mandate and refocus exclusively on whaling."
Britain, New Zealand and Australia immediately disassociated themselves from the declaration and said that it carried no policy weight. "This is simply a declaration of the views of pro-whaling nations, nothing more, nothing else," said Ian Campbell for Australia.
But the High North Alliance, the Norwegian pro-whaling pressure group, called it "a historic victory for the pro-whaling nations".
Denmark was one of 33 countries that voted in favour of a resolution by the host nation St Kitts and Nevis, declaring that the "IWC has failed to meet its obligations" and needed to be "normalised".
Pro-whalers erupted into spontaneous applause when the result of the vote was announced. The win stunned conservationists, many of whom believed that Denmark was in the anti-whaling camp.
The vote is largely symbolic and does not mean an imminent start to commercial whaling. But there was no hiding that it is a sign of the shifting balance of power within the IWC. The environmental group Whalewatch called it a "sea-change" in the two-decade-old struggle to end the 1986 moratorium protecting the world's dwindling whale stocks from commercial hunting.
"The future of whales hangs in the balance," said Leah Garces of the Whalewatch coalition. "This is a wake-up call to the world."
Ms Garces said the result should alarm Denmark. "A majority of Danes oppose commercial whaling, so why is their government here promoting it?" she asked.
Conservationists said the vote showed that Japan could buy its way back to commercial whaling. "The vote is hugely significant but hardly surprising," said New Zealand's Environment Minister, Chris Carter. "Japan has gone to enormous lengths to get this result."Reuse content