Japan's commissioner Minoru Morimoto, left, talks with chief negotiator Joji Morishita at the International Whaling Commission's annual plenary session
Members of the International Whaling Commission have voted down a Japanese effort to overturn a 19-year ban on hunting whales for profit. The vote shows the commission remains, for now, under the control of anti-whaling nations.

The 66-nation International Whaling Commission voted 29 to 23 to uphold the ban on commercial whaling at its annual meeting in Ulsan, South Korea.

The Japanese-backed proposal called the Revised Management Scheme would have changed the way whale-killing limits are set. Whaling opponents say it would have been a first step toward allowing commercial whale hunting.

Whale meat is a delicacy in Japan. Japan kills about 500 whales a year for what it says is scientific research, but the meat is then marketed to consumers.

New Zealand Environment Minister Chris Carter, who called the Japanese proposal a "return to the dirty old days" of whale killing, says he is delighted with the vote.

"Great loss of face for Japan," he said. "No doubt a lot of effort, resources and time went into garnering support. [It has] collapsed completely."

Mr. Carter says the ban on commercial whaling helps protect the profitable whale watching industry in both his country and Australia. He says whale tourism brings in $120 million a year in New Zealand.

Shigeko Misaki, with the Japan Whaling Association, disagrees the vote is an embarrassment for Japan.

"This was expected," said Ms. Misaki. "We thought we probably had even numbers. But then, a lot of nations turned around and started to abstain, and this was a surprise to us."

Ms. Misaki disputes environmentalists' claims that all whale species remain endangered. She says Japanese and international research has shown a surge in whale populations, particularly the minke whale, during the past 20 years. She says Japan will press forward with plans to double its scientific whale kills in the coming years.

Whaling opponents are also celebrating another victory. While it was widely expected that Japan would fail to win the two-thirds majority necessary to enact the proposal, there were fears it would win a simple majority. That would have indicated that the balance of the commission had tilted toward the pro-whaling camp. In failing to get a simple majority, pro-whaling nations may find they still need to take a back seat to nations that support whale conservation.