Whales emerged the big losers as a weeklong International Whaling Commission meeting wrapped up in Chile on Friday, said conservation groups, dismayed that anti-whaling nations were unable to halt No.1 hunter Japan.
Anti-whale hunting nations spearheaded by Australia voiced deep concern at Japan's skirting of a 1986 moratorium on commercial whaling by hunting hundreds of whales each year in the name of scientific research.
The divide between the two sides has generated so much tension that IWC chairman Bill Hogarth set up a working group to gain a year-long breathing space to try to build consensus and avoid confrontation this year.
But the deliberate nonconfrontational tack, with nations urged not to vote against each other on contentious issues like Japanese whaling or calls for a South Atlantic whale sanctuary, meant little was achieved at the meeting.
"I think it was a disappointing week for whales," said Ralf Sonntag of the International Fund for Animal Welfare.
"Japan goes home without any votes or resolutions against it. Iceland started a new round of commercial whaling just prior to this conference. So they are not taking it very seriously. Nothing has been achieved for the whales," Sonntag said.
Japan has given itself a special permit to catch 1000 whales each year despite the moratorium, while Norway and Iceland continue to hunt whales in defiance of the nonbinding ban.
Aboriginals in Greenland, Russia and Alaska are granted special concessions to continue catching whales for subsistence purposes.
But conservation groups were heartened that anti-whaling nations blocked a bid by Greenland to raise its hunt quota by another 10 humpback whales this year, amid claims some whale meat is being sold commercially in Greenland supermarkets.
"The real risk of this week was that it would be business as usual at the end of the meeting, and to a certain extent that is true," said Mick McIntyre, director of conservation group Whales Alive.
"The whaling countries still have unregulated so-called scientific whaling which they will continue to expand at their pleasure," McIntyre said.
Australia, which deeply opposes whaling and has proposed reforms like joint nonlethal whale research with Japan and conservation management, put a brave face on the meeting's outcome.
"We would count it as having been in the main a constructive and positive engagement," said Australian Environment Minister Peter Garrett.
"We're opposed to commercial whaling, we think the moratorium should stay in place and we're opposed to so-called scientific whaling in the way it is being conducted by Japan," he said.
"There are significant potential activities that countries can engage in in terms of cetacean research and whale use which doesn't require whales to be killed," he added, referring to a burgeoning global whale-watching industry.