The International Whaling Commission put the brakes Thursday on a plan critics said might lead to lifting an 18-year ban on commercial whaling, ending four days of acrimonious talks.
Japan and other pro-whaling countries favor lifting the moratorium, while the anti-whaling bloc opposes any move that might lead to an end of the ban.
The commission said in a resolution approved Thursday that the plan should be a starting point for discussing whale management over the next 12 months. But the resolution dropped a measure calling for a vote on the plan at next year's annual IWC meeting.
The initial text of the resolution was amended several times, mainly by anti-whaling countries.
U.S. commissioner to the IWC, William Hogarth, a proponent of the original text, called the outcome a "compromise" between pro-whaling countries and the anti-whaling bloc, led by New Zealand and Australia.
"What happened today was a little compromise between those two," he told reporters after the resolution was adopted by consensus.
Environmentalists welcomed the resolution, saying it ensures a transparent and fair process. "It is an honest way forward," said Kitty Block of Humane Society International, the international arm of the Humane Society of the United States, which belongs to an anti-whaling umbrella coalition called Whalewatch.
"It allows civil society to participate in a topic that's incredibly important: whether or not, and how, to resume commercial whaling," she said.
The plan that served as a basis of discussion was devised by commission chairman Henrik Fischer of Denmark. Backed by Japan, Iceland and other pro-whaling states, the plan would include a five-year phase-in period when commercial whaling would only be allowed on coastal waters. It envisions measures to ensure whalers do not exceed quotas.
Japan expressed dissatisfaction at the outcome of the four-day meeting, saying the vote on the resolution doesn't bode well for the future. "We are not optimistic about achieving a satisfactory outcome by the next meeting," said a statement by Japan's Fisheries Agency.
Environmentalists feared the proposal could loosen the ban on commercial whaling, with some saying it was first step to doing away with the moratorium.
The International Whaling Commission banned commercial whaling in 1986. But it approved restricted hauls by Japan a year later for research purposes - a program criticized by environmentalists as commercial whaling in disguise - and Norway rejected the ban under commission rules. Iceland resumed research whaling last year after a 14-year hiatus.
Adopting a system to manage whaling quotas has been discussed for over a decade. Some officials say that, since whaling does occur, it would be better to have a program to control it. Many also predict that if the stalemate between pro- and anti-whalers continues, countries will act outside the whaling commission.
In a heated debate, Japan argued that if the rules can be set to ensure sustainable hunting, a ban is pointless and the moratorium should automatically be lifted. But that view was rejected by some countries, and Hogarth said the United States believes there is no link between the two processes.
"The United States is totally against commercial whaling," he told The Associated Press.
However, he said, for the IWC to work, "We need good strong measures in place."
"We're in this commission, and we feel like we should be fulfilling what the commission should be doing," he said.
By Alessandra Rizzo