By Shaun Tandon (AFP)

PANAMA CITY — Japan, Norway and their allies blocked a bid Friday to give the United Nations a greater role in protecting whales, as sought by conservationists frustrated by deep polarization over whaling.

The International Whaling Commission was closing its latest annual meeting marred by intense divisions, although the 89-nation group found a rare point of consensus by agreeing to study the health effects of eating whale meat.

Monaco's envoy, Frederic Briand, said that the six-decade-old commission was undermined by its own inability to enforce decisions -- a reference to Japan's annual whaling expeditions in Antarctic waters declared a no-kill sanctuary.

The measure met opposition from Japan, Norway and Iceland, which conduct whaling despite a 1986 global moratorium. South Korea jolted the conference on Wednesday by saying that it would become the fourth nation to do so.

"It is very ridiculous for the IWC to seem to give up its mandate, its law and its responsibility," Japanese official Akima Umezawa said, describing parts of Monaco's resolution as "imbalanced, inconsistent and irrelevant."

Norway's representative, Ole-David Stenseth, said that "species issues in general are not a matter for the General Assembly but for competent fisheries agencies."

Faced with the opposition, Monaco withdrew the resolution. Briand said he would instead invite nations to meet at a later date to study the issues he raised.

In a failed bid to reach consensus, Monaco revised the resolution to take out allusions to Japan's whaling. It also watered down a call for the UN General Assembly to take up whaling at its next session, instead calling only in general terms for cooperation with the United Nations.

Briand said that his main concern was that the IWC had authority only over 38 migratory cetaceans, with no other species added in decades and limited coordination with UN environmental bodies.

Of the members of the United Nations, "a great part share our concern that the stocks of highly migratory animals should be taken care of in coordination among all concerned countries," Briand said.

Environmentalists suspected that Japan and Norway -- usually known for their enthusiasm over the United Nations -- wanted to avoid a larger profile over the whaling dispute.

"Clearly Japan, Norway and Iceland want to keep the bile at the International Whaling Commission confined here. They don't want to have to show up at the United Nations and defend the indefensible," said Patrick Ramage of the International Fund for Animal Welfare.

The commission's meeting saw friction at nearly every turn, with nations refusing to extend aboriginal whaling rights in Greenland and a separate coalition blocking a Latin American attempt to declare a whale sanctuary in the southern Atlantic Ocean.

But a German-led resolution passed through the commission late Thursday that encouraged the World Health Organization to conduct research on the meat of whales and other cetaceans.

Whaling nations allowed the measure to proceed after the wording was changed to call for the study of both the "positive and negative health effects" of the meat.

Sandra Altherr of German advocacy group Pro Wildlife said that meat from whales and dolphins can cause disorders through high concentrations of mercury and PCB. She hailed the passage of the measure as progress.

"In Japan, you have some excellent scientists working on this issue but their reports are only seen in internal publications," Altherr said.

"I hope that this will send a signal to the different governments and to the public."

Photo AFP/File, Jung Yeon-Je