Native people of Greenland have won a long battle to extend their annual whale hunt to humpbacks, overriding objections from conservation-minded members of the International Whaling Commission.
The decision was made yesterday at the end of a contentious five-day meeting that failed to resolve a larger dispute: a proposal to suspend a quarter-century ban on commercial whaling in exchange for a promise by the three whaling countries — Japan, Norway and Iceland — to reduce the numbers they kill in defiance of the ban.
The commission decided on a one-year "pause" in negotiations on the commercial moratorium.
Greenlanders, like indigenous people from three other countries, are granted the right to hunt for food and to maintain traditional cultures, but only under strict quotas that are reviewed every five years.
They have been allowed to kill more than 200 of the common minke whale, but also 19 of the endangered fin whale. About half of Greenland's 60,000 people are native to the icebound island.
For three years they have fought to include the humpback in their catch. This year Denmark, speaking for its autonomous territory, offered to trade nine fin whales for nine humpbacks. Opponents objected to expanding the list of allowed species and to potential damage to the whale-watching industry in the Caribbean, where the humpbacks roam.
The United States, one of four countries that have indigenous populations with whaling rights, supported Denmark.
The Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society condemned the decision, saying some of the whale meat ends up on supermarket shelves. A 2008 investigation showed about one-fourth of the whales the Greenlanders caught were sold on the market in violation of the commission's rules.
In the past, the five-year renewal of subsistence quotas have led to bitter clashes.
The US delegation sought to extend the period to at least seven years, but withdrew its motion when it was clear it would fail.
In a departure from normal procedure, the mayor of a small town in the northernmost area of Alaska made an emotional appeal to the commission to lift his people from "the constant uncertainty" of the periodic renewals.
"We the Inuit are the original conservationists and have sustainably hunted the bowhead whale for over 2,000 years," said Edward Itta. "Our relationship to the bowhead whale is at the very core of our culture. It is who we are, physically, spiritually and as a community."
"We Eskimos are like the bowhead. We are a part of the Arctic ecosystem," he said. "All we ask is that this commission recognize our needs."
US Whaling Commissioner Monica Medina complained in a statement Thursday that the quotas for native peoples "continue to be used as a bargaining chip by both pro- and anti-whaling governments seeking something in return."
Until the final day, the indigenous issue was overshadowed by the failure earlier in the week to strike a deal on suspending a 1986 moratorium on commercial whaling for 10 years if the three whaling nations agreed to reduce their catches, now totaling about 1,500 whales a year.
The compromise failed when key countries insisted on a deal that would gradually phase out all whaling. Norway's commissioner, Karsten Klepsvik, said the zero-catch demand was "for us an impossible situation."
Most environment groups called the breakdown a setback to efforts to save the Earth's shrunken population of whales. Others said lifting the ban — one of the most effective conservation measures in history — would be a fatal mistake since there was no guarantee it could be reimposed at the end of the 10-year suspension.
"I think the whales lost. In the end of the day more whales will be killed," said Susan Lieberman of the Pew Environment Group.
Conservation groups estimate 1.5 million whales were killed in the 20th century, pushing the largest species like the blue whale to the brink of extinction.
Today, Japanese factory ships regularly raid whale stocks in the waters around Antarctica that the commission declared a no-take zone in 1994 to protect the migratory animals in their most fertile feeding ground. Japan claims the right to hunt under the commission's exemption for scientific research, but nearly all the meat ends up in restaurants.
Unable to compromise after a determined push this week, some delegates suggested the talks should move outside the commission to a higher political platform — at least the level of Cabinet ministers.
"There are no winners and losers in this," said Sir Geoffrey Palmer, New Zealand's former prime minister. "It ain't over til it's over, and even then it ain't over. There will be a pause. We will resume discussions about this next year," he told The Associated Press.