The International Whaling Commission on Wednesday cast a rare strong vote in favor of whale hunting -- but strictly for small subsistence hunts undertaken by some communities, mostly in the Arctic.
The vote confirmed a long-standing commitment to so-called aboriginal subsistence whaling (ASW) for nutritional and cultural reasons -- an exception to the decades-old ban on commercial whaling.
But some NGOs feared the vote could help ease the way for a return to full-scale commercial whaling, eagerly being pushed by Japan and other pro-whaling nations at a tense IWC meeting in Brazil.
"What the consequences are for the return of commercial whaling is extremely concerning," said Aimee Leslie of the World Wildlife Fund (WWF).
Ryan Wulff, the US commissioner to the IWC, said the deal "gives our native communities the much-needed flexibility to operate more safely in dangerous environmental conditions that vary from one year to the next."
The issue is highly sensitive because Japan -- with the backing of Iceland, Norway and some other nations -- is using many of the same cultural arguments to call for a return to commercial whaling.
Both pro and anti-whaling nations came together in a 68-7 vote to set a catch quota of hundreds of minke, fin, humpback and bowhead whales for the next six years for communities in Alaska, Russia, Greenland and Bequia in Saint Vincent and the Grenadines.
Crawford Patkotak, of the Alaska Eskimo Whaling Commission, said he wanted to "thank God first of all," for the vote result.
"This means a lot to our people -- we live in harsh conditions. This is a great day for us, the people of the north," Patkotak said.
- NGO objections -
Anti-whaling NGOs and states had raised fears that higher quotas would increase the chances of more widespread whale hunting.
They objected to an original plan for automatic renewal of the quotas after six years, and a carry-over of unused quotas from year to year.
The WWF said a compromise -- under which the IWC scientific committee would oversee the renewal of quotas -- did not provide a sufficient safeguard.
"They basically gave a green light to auto-renewal without establishing how any concerns or questions will be addressed," said Leslie.
"The lines just keep getting more blurred between the different types of whaling and that is extremely concerning for the future of whales and how whaling will be managed."
- What about commercial whaling? -
Later this week, the IWC will take up Japan's proposals to return to commercial whaling.
"There is massive support for aboriginal subsistence whaling but that is not to say there would be anything like that support for commercial whaling. Far from it," said one state representative close to the talks.
Iceland, which continues to hunt whales in defiance of a 32-year moratorium, welcomed the green-light for aboriginal whale hunts, saying it was a shift in the IWC's position.
Nicolas Entrup of Swiss-based NGO OceanCare accused Iceland of trying to "instrumentalize indigenous people's rights to go whaling" to gain momentum for wider acceptance of commercial whaling.
Patkotak was one of several whaling captains from Alaska and Russia's Chukotka peninsula to make presentations to the IWC meeting, bringing the cold chill of their real-life problems to the room.
The skipper, who represents 150 whaling captains from 11 villages spread over a large swathe of the North Alaska coast, said the quotas were not to be taken lightly, particularly when the IWC had denied them in the past.
"This is something we have struggled with for many years -- to see this day where we are able to go about our lives in peace without the anxiety to provide for our people," Patkotak said.
The Hawaii-based Whaleman Foundation said both Alaska's Makah community and Bequia "do not have a true subsistence need" and should not be given quotas to kill whales.
The Caribbean island of Bequia has been given a quota to take four whales a year.