At the International Whaling Commission's annual meeting in Panama City on Monday, Japanese representatives led the charge against the establishment of a whaling sanctuary in the South Atlantic Ocean.

The proposal to create the new sanctuary -- which would prohibit the killing of whales in the waters between South America and Africa -- was presented by Argentina, South Africa, Uruguay and Brazil, according to Agence France-Presse.

The matter was put to a vote, and 38 countries -- a majority -- supported the sanctuary. But a full three-fourths was required to pass the motion, and Japan, along with 20 other naysayers, successfully blocked it. The opponents included Norway, Iceland, China, South Korea and host of smaller Asian nations.

Some environmentalists are livid over the development, criticizing Japan for standing in the way of marine conservation.

Roofs on Roofs

The whole situation is rife with absurdities. For one thing, barely any whaling currently takes place in the South Atlantic, which is a hemisphere away from Japan. Furthermore, many of the countries that sided with Japan in Monday's vote have little or no interest in the whaling industry. Nobody is rushing to kill whales in the South Atlantic, which makes the sanctuary push seem more than a little symbolic.

And, as Japan pointed out in defense of its veto, a worldwide moratorium on commercial whaling already exists, and has been in place since 1986. Adding another sanctuary, said Japanese officials, would be like building a roof on top of a roof.

The thing is, both of those roofs are pretty leaky.

Neither sanctuaries nor moratoria have stopped Japanese crews from killing hundreds of whales every year in the waters surrounding Antarctica -- a sanctuary-protected area called the Southern Ocean -- and selling the meat to domestic markets.

Japan's activities there are no secret, and have been condemned by international organizations for years. In Western media, Japanese whale hunters are frequently vilified.

Environmentalist groups have waged a long campaign against whaling activities, and Greenpeace has been at the forefront of this movement. With rallies, petitions and public awareness initiatives, its campaigners are adamant in their efforts to expose the Japanese whaling industry to global scrutiny.

The cause has also been popularized by a U.S. television show called Whale Wars. The series, which runs on Animal Planet and is now in its fifth season, follows a ship crewed by environmentalists who patrol the frigid waters around Antarctica in attempts to stop Japanese crews from hunting whales there. The show has scored millions of viewers and an Emmy nomination.

So why does the Japanese government allow its whaling enterprise to continue, and why haven't existing sanctuaries been able to stop it?

Unfunded Theories

Japan argues that its work in the Southern Ocean is not meant to supply commercial markets with whale meat, but to conduct scientific research. Their stated aim is actually the preservation of whale populations -- they argue that by following the 1986 moratorium on commercial whaling, they were compelled to collect data that would help them learn more about whale populations. They said they could use this data to pursue whaling in a more sustainable fashion.

In conducting this research, they maintain, killings are sometimes necessary.

More than 100 measurements and samples are taken from each whale and there are some bits of information that you can only get from lethal research, explained former Whaling Commissioner Joji Morishita to the BBC. For example, you need ovaries to determine pregnancy rates, which you can't get by simply observing these animals.

Then, according to a waste-not-want-not protocol enforced by the IWC, meat products from dead whales are sent to Japan and sold. Those revenues help to keep the research project afloat, and are not meant to turn a profit.

More to the point, they don't turn a profit. By some accounts, Japan's whaling industry seems closer to extinction than the whales themselves. Demand for whale meat is down, with the vast majority of Japanese citizens never or rarely consuming whale meat. One report, published in May by the Iruka & Kujira (Dolphin & Whale) Action Network, found that a November auction of more than 1,200 tons of whale meat failed miserably -- more than 900 tons were left unsold.

In a sinking industry, desperate times call for desperate measures. Last year, it emerged that billions of yen had to be diverted to cover the high costs of whaling research. These funds were originally meant to aid in Japan's recovery following the country's devastating 2011 tsunami.

Keeping Control

With such a clear lack of economic impetus, some wonder why Japan still defends its much-contested whaling rights.

At the heart of it all seems to be the issue of national sovereignty. The fact is, whale hunting has taken place in Japan for thousands of years. Many hunters insist on their right to follow cultural traditions, and maintaining the practice has become a matter of national pride. As the former chief of the Japanese Fisheries Agency Masayuki Komatsu once said, No one has the right to criticize the food culture of another people.

Furthermore, Japanese officials say they do not target endangered species. Most of those killed are minke whales, which have never been in danger of extinction.

Japanese officials have criticized organizations like Greenpeace, pointing out that their massive public awareness campaigns are funded by donor dollars. It is therefore in their best interest to be one-sided -- to shock audiences with bloody images of dead whales instead of addressing the more complex realities.

To many in Japan, whale hunting is simply not as big a deal as environmentalists make it out to be. And Japanese officials have their own reasons to rebuff criticism; they are loathe to set a diplomatic precedent for backing down to outsider demands.

And so the country employed some diplomacy of its own during the ICW meeting this Monday.

Jose Truda Palazzo, formerly Brazil's representative to the IWC, told Agence France-Presse that he suspected collaboration on the part of smaller countries that voted against the sanctuary -- many of them receive economic assistance from Japan.

You can't really believe that [a small island nation like] Nauru or Tuvalu has an interest or has studied the sanctuary. They are voting because Japan tells them to, he said.

Japan doesn't want to give an inch on anything that may compromise their ability to roam the world doing whaling as they see fit.