Groups Pro-, Anti-Whaling Square Off at Conference

Pro-whaling nations, led by Japan, lost two key votes Friday at the International Whaling Commission's annual meeting — an indication they may not have the majority necessary to take control of the body and try to repeal its ban on commercial hunting.

In the first vote, Japan sought to remove the issue of hunting dolphins and porpoises from the agenda of the 70-member IWC meeting on the Caribbean island of St. Kitts. But it failed by a 32-30 vote.

In the second vote, Japan lost its bid to introduce secret ballots, something the group has never done for major initiatives in its 60-year history, officials said. The resolution failed by a 33-30 vote, with the Solomon Islands — a nation that usually sides with Japan — abstaining.

At the meeting, Japan and other pro-whaling nations have been expected to form a majority on the international body for the first time since a 1986 ban on commercial whaling.

Pro-whaling countries need a 75 percent majority of those voting to repeal the commercial ban — considered unlikely — but a simple majority will allow them to have more influence over future decisions and potentially make significant changes.

Belize, a small Central American country that has received aid from Japan and had been expected to support it on the whaling commission, voted against it in both votes.

New Zealand's Conservation Minister Chris Carter described the defeat of the secret ballot resolution as a major victory for anti-whaling nations.

"Secret deals, secret voting — such methods are tools to hide unpleasant facts from one's own people," Carter said after the vote.

"Both whales and democratic principles have dodged a harpoon again this year at the IWC," said Patrick Ramage, spokesman for the International Fund for Animal Welfare.

But Joji Morishita, head of the Japanese delegation, downplayed the defeat and said gaining a majority for the secret ballot initiative was not a pivotal issue at this year's meeting.

"There are some countries missing, so it doesn't mean we wouldn't have the support next year," he said, referring to pro-whaling nations Guatemala and Senegal, which failed to show up for the conference.

Morishita said secret ballots were needed to protect countries from those who disagree with their votes.

"Some delegates from smaller nations have had to change hotels every few days following harassment by protesters," Morishita said as he introduced the unsuccessful initiative.

A shift to a pro-whaling majority would have come after years of lobbying by Japan to get developing nations to join the whaling commission. Environmental groups have accused Japan of using its wealth to influence poorer nations — an allegation Tokyo has denied.

Some attendees said pro-whaling nations may still win some victories at the conference.

"It's round one," said Joanna Benn, a conservationist with the Worldwide Fund for Nature. "There are key issues on the table still."