Negotiations on the future of commercial whaling collapsed on Wednesday, as members of the International Whaling Commission called for a year-long "cooling off" period.
Since Monday, the 88-member IWC has been debating a draft deal to suspend a 24-year moratorium on commercial whaling for 10 years in return for progressive cuts over the period in the number of whales killed.
"The proposal on the table coming into the meeting is a dead letter," said Gert Lindermann, the IWC Commissioner from Germany.
"We have agreed that we need a period of 'cooling off' to find out if there is real readiness to look for a compromise,' he told AFP.
"You have to put this document aside for the moment," Brazil's top negotiator Fabio Pitaluga told the IWC's chairman in a plenary session after two days of intense closed-door meetings. "We need a pause."
The U.S. delegate noted "the inability to find a new paradigm" and said the process "lacked political maturity."
Iceland, Norway and Japan have continued to use legal loopholes to sidestep the 1986 whaling ban, harvesting more than 1,500 of the marine mammals in the 2008-2009 season alone.
The proposal would have left open the status of the moratorium after 2020.
While the draft deal has yet to be formally buried, pro- and anti-whaling delegates agreed that doing so is a nearly foregone conclusion.
Acting IWC chairman Anthony Liverpool said too many "major issues" remained to be resolved.
These include the status of the moratorium, the number of whales that could be killed during a temporary suspension, clauses which allow countries to opt out of decisions taken by the commission and whether whale products can be traded internationally.
Another hot button issue is the Southern Ocean, declared a whale sanctuary in 1994.
Many anti-whaling nations — Australia, Britain, Germany and most of Latin America — have called on Tokyo to halt hunting in the nutrient-rich Antarctic waters.
But Japanese spokesman Glenn Inwood said this simply isn't going to happen: "That's a deal breaker," he told AFP.
Japan's negotiator Yasue Funayama agreed in plenary that "there seems no prospect of an agreement."
"Some members want to put a halt to all but aboriginal hunting. This position creates an impasse," she told the plenary.
"There is an absence of political will to compromise," said Geoffrey Palmer, New Zealand's top whaling diplomat and an IWC veteran.
Palmer traced a history of "rancorous, accusatory" talks over the last decade, and warned that the failure to reform could be "fatal" for the IWC.
He endorsed a "pause", but said the fundamental identity of the international body was now in doubt.
"Is this a treaty about the conservation of whales ... or is it a treaty about whaling and the exploitation of commercial whaling? And can it accommodate both views?", he asked the plenary.
But Palmer, whose stewardship of a key policy committee was lauded by both pro- and anti-whaling countries, said that long-standing acrimony had, in part, given way to a more civil tone of mutual respect during the talks.
Despite New Zealand's pro-conservation position, he also singled out Japan for praise, saying it had "showed real flexibility and a real willingness to compromise."
Green groups, however, reacted angrily to the collapse of the talks and blamed their collapse on Tokyo.
"The lack of sufficient flexibility shown by Japan to phase out its whaling in the Southern Ocean Whale Sanctuary prevented a decision from being adopted," said Sue Lieberman of the Pew Environmental Group.