Sweeping improvements in whale conservation are in prospect following a historic change of direction by the International Whaling Commission, the body set up in 1946 to regulate commercial whaling.
At its annual meeting in Berlin on Monday, IWC delegates voted by 25 votes to 20 to accept a resolution dubbed the "Berlin Initiative".
The controversial resolution was tabled by countries opposed to whaling and aims to push the IWC firmly towards conserving whales, rather than managing how many are caught. And for the first time, the IWC will help to conserve small cetaceans as well as the dozen great whales it has protected till now.
"Whales around the world are safer today thanks to this landmark decision," says Fred O’Regan, President of the Massachusetts-based International Fund for Animal Welfare. "It marks a move from centuries of exploitation to a new century of wildlife conservation."
Anti-whalers have hailed the vote as the biggest thing to happen since the IWC introduced its moratorium on commercial whaling in 1986.
However, pro-whaling nations like Japan saw the Berlin Initiative as a thinly-veiled attempt to end commercial whaling for good. "Hidden beneath the mask of conservation is a devious strategy to end all sustainable use of whale resources for food," warned Minoru Morimoto, Japan’s commissioner to the IWC at the beginning of the meeting.
During Monday’s session, both Japan and Norway said they reserved their right to not participate in this "so-called Conservation Committee" and their right not to contribute to it.
These nations had expressed their fear that the shift towards conservation could drain the IWC’s resources for managing whaling. They are impatient for the IWC to complete and introduce a so-called "revised management scheme" allowing commercial whaling to resume.
But, with the passing of the new resolution, it will now be possible for the IWC to actively promote and manage conservation beyond the narrow activity of whaling itself. This expansion will encompass issues such as accidental deaths in fishing nets, collisions with boats, the effects of pollution and guidelines for "whale-tourism".