Greenland's indigenous peoples won the right Friday to hunt 27 humpback whales, capping three years of acrimonious debate within the 88-nation International Whaling Commission.
The self-ruled Danish territory can now kill and consume nine of the giant marine mammals each year through 2012, with its existing quota of more than 200 minke and fin whales cut by the same number.
The decision — greeted with applause — came on the closing day of the IWC's annual meeting in Agadir, Morocco, where a big-tent compromise deal between pro- and anti-whaling nations collapsed earlier in the week.
"Aboriginal subsistence whaling" to meet nutritional and cultural needs is the only kind allowed under a 1986 ban on commercial whaling, with quotas also allocated to indigenous groups in the Russian Far East and Alaska.
The only other nation allowed to kill humpbacks — a species noted for spectacularly breaching the ocean surface — is St. Vincent and The Grenadines in the Caribbean, which has a yearly allocation of four animals.
"Our rights will be violated if we can't get this resolution," Greenland's fishing and hunting minister, Ane Hansen, said during a tense plenary session.
IWC scientists, she noted, had determined that harvesting 10 whales every year for a decade would not adversely affect humpback populations.
But the proposal quickly ran into flak from some of the 11 Latin American nations in the so-called Buenos Aires group.
"The fact that the quotas do not affect the survival of stock does not mean that they will not effect tourism in the Caribbean," said Costa Rica's top whaling negotiator, Eugenia Arguedas.
The same whales that might be killed off Greenland's west coast also nourish a booming whalewatching industry half a world away, she said.
Monaco's Commissioner, as top negotiators are called, also questioned whether the whales were truly needed to meet the subsistence needs of Greenland's Inuit population.
"This population is not exactly starving. They enjoy one of the highest average household incomes in the world," said Frederic Briand.
He also pointed out that "more than 3,000 small cetaceans" — an order including whales, dolphins and porpoises — caught every year in Greenland's waters also supply meat to the 55,000-strong population.
But a large majority of delegates backed the proposal.
"You are talking about money from whalewatching, but we are talking about food," an indigenous delegate from Russia said angrily in support.
"There are two types of whaling, sustainable and non-sustainable. This is sustainable whaling," Iceland's top negotiator, Tomas Heider, told the plenary.
Delegates from several nations, including Japan, warned that rejecting Greenland's request — or even taking it to a vote — would further damage the deeply riven Commission, which is openly questioning its future viability.
"I do not believe that purity and absolutism can be a guide for an International Organisation that works," said New Zealand's Geoffrey Palmer, who backed the bid despite his country's strong anti-whaling positions.
The European Union, after hammering out a deal with Denmark reducing the total number of whales, also threw in its support, sparking the ire of animal welfare groups.
"The EU's support is shameful," said Joanna Toole of the World Society for the Protection of Animals. "What is the point of protecting whales in EU waters and then voting for them to be harpooned just a few hundred miles further north?"
After a flurry of diplomatic activity and several breaks for consultation, the measure finally passed by consensus.
Despite the moratorium on commercial whaling, Iceland, Japan and Norway use legal loopholes to harvest hundreds of large cetaceans every year, more than 1,500 in the 2008-2009 season alone.
More than 33,000 whales have been killed since the global ban went into effect.