AGADIR, Morocco - An international effort to truly limit whale hunting collapsed yesterday, leaving Japan, Norway and Iceland free to keep killing hundreds of mammals a year, even raiding a marine sanctuary in Antarctic waters unchecked.
The breakdown put diplomatic efforts on ice for at least a year, raised the possibility that South Korea might join the whaling nations, and raised questions about the global drive to prevent the extinction of the most endangered whale species.
It also revived doubts about the effectiveness and future of the International Whaling Commission. The agency was created after World War II to oversee the hunting of tens of thousands of whales a year but gradually evolved into a body at least partly dedicated to keeping whales from vanishing from the Earth's oceans.
Japanese officials and environmentalists traded charges of blame after two days of intense, closed-door talks failed to break a deadlock in which the three whaling nations offered to limit their catch but refused to phase it out completely. About 1,500 animals are killed each year by the three countries.
Japan, which kills the majority of whales, insists its hunt is for scientific research - but more whale meat and whale products end up in Japanese restaurants than in laboratories.
Several whale species have been hunted to near extinction, gradually recovering since the ban on commercial whaling went into effect in 1986, while other species like the smaller minke are still abundant.
A key sticking point is the sanctity of an ocean region south of Australia that the agency declared a whaling sanctuary in 1994. Despite that declaration, Japanese whalers regularly hunt in Antarctic waters, a feeding ground for 80 percent of the world's whales, and the commission has no enforcement powers to stop them.
Australia has already launched a complaint against Japanese whaling, at the International Court of Justice in The Hague, the UN's highest court.
Another stubborn obstacle was the demand to phase down whaling to zero. "We certainly pushed for that long and hard," U.S. whaling commissioner Monica Medina told AP. "We think that all whaling, other than indigenous subsistence whaling, should come to an end."
Japan delegate Yasue Funayama said her country had offered major concessions and agreed "to elements which are extremely difficult to accept." She blamed the failure of the talks on countries that refused to accept the killing of even a single animal.
The United States had pushed hard for a deal to bring the three nations back under the commission's control and recognize a limited catch, but finding an acceptable number of whales to kill proved elusive.
The 88 members of the whaling agency are about evenly split between countries that oppose whaling and nations who advocate sustainable whaling.