The bid by Japan and Norway to resume full-scale commercial hunting of the minke and gray whales was rejected yesterday by the international body on endangered species. It was immediately greeted by environmentalists as a "major victory for nature".
The two countries had argued that whaling is part of their culture, but failed to win international approval for limited trade in the species.
The International Whaling Commission has banned all commercial whale catches, but both Norway and Japan bypass the moratorium by exploiting loopholes in the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling which permit them to hunt whales for local consumption and scientifice purposes.
In secret ballots, 53 countries attending the UN conference on trade in endangered species voted against a Japanese proposal which would have allowed controlled trade of the gray whale. Forty countries voted in favour of the plan and nine abstained.
There were 64 and 67 votes respectively against two other Japanese proposals to allow controlled commerce in minke whales located in the southern hemisphere and in an area from the Okhotsk Sea to the western Pacific Ocean. A Norwegian proposal to allow limited hunting of the minke whale in the north-eastern Atlantic was also rejected.
The decisions could still be overturned next week when the measures go before a plenary session of the 11th conference of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, or CITES. Some 2,000 delegates representing 151 countries are due to attend the 10-day forum in the Kenyan capital. But both Japan and Norway have said they will not appeal.
"This is a big victory for nature," said Kurt Oddekalv, president of the Norwegian Environmental Organisation. But the Norwegian delegation head Peter Johan Schei called the defeat of his country's minke whale proposal "small for Norway but big for science".
"It is also a defeat for CITES as a credible organisation," he said, adding that such decisions should be made on a scientific, not an emotional basis.
He blamed the defeat on unidentified "fundamentalist countries" which have decided against scientific evidence not to permit the reopening of trade in whales.
Delegates from France, the US and Australia were among those who spoke against allowing limited international trade in whales.
On Wednesday, Norwegian whalers insisted scientific surveys demonstrated that stocks of the gray and minke whales were sufficient to allow limited exploitation and that not one piece of meat from a seriously endangered species would show up in fish markets.
Both countries insist that whaling is an intrinsic part of their national heritage. Between them, they caught 1,078 minke whales in 1999.
The World Wildlife Fund said in a statement earlier in the week that it was the job of the International Whaling Commission, not CITES, to take care of the management and conservation of the world's whales.