Japan’s attempts to “reopen the commercial trade in whale products” have been frustrated at an international conference, conservationists claimed Wednesday.

Japan had proposed setting up a review to consider whether all of the great whale species should remain on an endangered list that prevents international trade in those products.

However, the plan was defeated at the meeting in The Hague, Netherlands, with 28 votes for, 55 against and 13 abstentions, according to environmentalists.

“This is a big win for the great whales. Today’s decision signals an emerging global consensus for whale conservation in the 21st century,” said Patrick Ramage, from the International Fund for Animal Welfare.

At a committee meeting of CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora), Japan proposed a full review of the population status of all 13 great whale species, which are currently on a protected list that bans international trade.

If the review had gone ahead, environmentalists feared that some whale species would have been taken off the protected list and trade could have started.

The ban on the international trade in whale products has been in place for several decades now and is largely guided by the international ban on whaling, which was agreed in 1986 by the International Whaling Commission.

Despite the ban on international trade, however, Japan, Iceland and Norway all hold “reservations” on whale species, which means they can carry out a trade in these species if they want. The actual trade in whale meat is very small at the moment, with Norway having made several small exports over the last few years.

Environmentalists think Japan’s moves are largely driven by a desire to “legitimize” commercial whaling and trade. Conservationists say that if Japan’s plan had been endorsed, it would have undermined the IWC, which is supposed to be the prime body for regulating whaling.

At the committee meeting, Iceland also proposed that CITES review the protection currently afforded to the North Atlantic fin whale with a view to allowing the international trade in the mammals, which it began hunting commercially last year, environmentalists said.

A counterproposal from Australia that stated that no review of any great whale should occur while the IWC’s ban was in place, was adopted by 60 votes for and 23 against, and again 13 countries abstained.

The decisions from the committee meeting will need to be ratified at the plenary session of CITES, which concludes June 15. The committee recommendations are normally adopted.

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