In a rare moment Wednesday, the International Whaling Commission voted overwhelmingly to back whale hunting, but strictly for small subsistence hunts undertaken by some communities, mostly in the Arctic.
The vote confirmed a longstanding commitment to so-called aboriginal subsistence hunting (ASW), for nutritional and cultural reasons, which continues to be an exception to the decades-old ban on commercial whaling.
"This important agreement gives our native communities the much-needed flexibility to operate more safely in dangerous environmental conditions that vary from one year to the next," said Ryan Wulff, US Commissioner to the IWC.
The issue is highly sensitive because Japan, with the backing of Iceland, Norway and some other nations, is using many of the same cultural arguments to call for a return to commercial whaling at the IWC's 67th meeting in Brazil.
The IWC voted by 68 to 7 to set a catch quota of hundreds of minke, fin, humpback and bowhead whales for the next six years for communities in Alaska, Russia, Greenland and Bequia in Saint Vincent and the Grenadines.
Anti-whaling states had raised objections to an original plan for automatic renewal of the quotas after six years, and a carry-over of unused quotas from year to year.
The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) said a compromise where the IWC scientific committe would oversee the renewal of quotas set a dangerous precedent.
"They basically gave a green light to auto-renewal without establishing how any concerns or questions will be addressed," said Aimee Leslie of the WWF.
"What the consequences are for the return of commercial whaling is extremely concerning," she said.
"The lines just keep getting more blurred between the different types of whaling and that is extremely concerning for the future of whales and how whaling will be managed, especially with a disempowered commission after today."
Iceland, which continues to hunt whales in defiance of a 32-year moratorium, welcomed the general acceptance of the scientific committee's go ahead for hunting of some whale stocks for indigenous communities, saying it was a shift in the IWC's position.
Nicolas Entrup of Swiss-based NGO OceanCare accused Iceland of trying to "instrumentalize indigenous people's rights to go whaling. For us, it's very important that we keep up the differentiation between subsistence whaling, which is for subsistence and cultural needs, and commercial whaling."