By Richard Black
Environment correspondent, BBC News website, St Kitts
Japan unexpectedly lost two key votes on the opening day of the International Whaling Commission (IWC) annual meeting on the Caribbean island of St Kitts.
Japan's proposals disappeared under water on day one
The pro-whaling nation wanted to end work on conservation of small cetaceans such as dolphins and porpoises, and introduce secret ballots.
Conservation groups and anti-whaling countries reacted cautiously.
Japan said it would consider leaving the IWC unless it moved towards a resumption of commercial whaling.
To many delegates here the results came as a surprise, as Japan appeared to command the balance of power.
This would have enabled it to change or remove many of the IWC's programmes, though not overturn the 20-year moratorium on commercial whaling, which would require a three-quarters majority.
But delegations from a few of Japan's anticipated allies including Guatemala, Senegal and Togo did not arrive, while Belize departed from its traditional pro-whaling stance; the first motion fell by 32 votes to 30, the second by 33 to 30.
"On both of those key issues we've had magnificent victories, contributed to by great teamwork between the UK and Australia and New Zealand and the US," said Australian Environment Minister Ian Campbell.
"It's early days, we've got a long way to go, but these are significant and historic victories for whales," he told BBC News.
'Dodging the harpoon'
The IWC does not regulate the hunting of small cetaceans, but conducts research and gives advice on conservation, which Japan believes is not within the IWC's remit.
Environment groups believe that removing this research and advice function would have major implications for many species, such as the Yangtze river dolphin and the gulf porpoise of North America, both of which are Critically Endangered according to the internationally recognised Red List of Threatened Species.
Tangling in fishing nets kills thousands of dolphins each year
Not surprisingly these organisations welcomed the motion's defeat, though warning that other votes later in the meeting could yet go in a different direction. Delegates from two nations which traditionally support Japan, Cameroon and Togo, arrived later on the opening day.
"We are relieved but not relaxed about the early voting here," said Joth Singh, director of wildlife and habitat protection with the International Fund for Animal Welfare (Ifaw).
"So far we have managed to dodge the harpoon, but let's see how things go for the rest of the week."
The weekend will see further key votes on Japanese motions. It wants to introduce limited whaling for "the revitalisation of impoverished coastal fishing and/or whaling communities".
It will also be presenting a paper on "normalisation" of the IWC, by which it means reviving its original purpose of regulating commercial whaling.
"The Convention language is very clear; its purpose is sustainable use and protection of depleted and endangered species," Japan's Deputy Whaling Commissioner Joji Morishita told BBC News.
"Allowing sustainable use of abundant species while protecting the depleted... we don't see the problem with that, but it's not happening in this organisation."
Mr Morishita said that if there were no moves towards "normalisation" within the next few years, it might leave the IWC entirely.
Swinging the vote
A question doing the rounds here is "what swung the vote?"
It appears that the self-styled "pro-conservation" group of countries, informally headed by Australia, Brazil, New Zealand, the UK and US, exerted a certain amount of pressure on some of the smaller developing nations - something which environment groups have been urging for years.
Ian Campbell said attempts to persuade those countries into the pro-conservation fold would continue.
"What we have to do is say [to nations which support Japan], 'this is what you're supporting; you're coming to an international body, under the auspices of the United Nations, and firstly saying that we should no longer care about dolphins and whales, and secondly saying we should conduct votes in secret'.
"It is hard to believe that in this day and age, any nation, let alone leading first-world nations like Norway and Japan, could with a straight face get away with proposing such a preposterous, undemocratic proposal."
Japan urged secret ballots because it says developing country delegates have been intimidated and harassed at previous meetings.
A tactic which environment groups have pursued this year is to canvass opinion in pro-whaling countries.
On the eve of the meeting, WWF released a poll showing a majority against whaling in nine out of 10 IWC member states in the Caribbean and Pacific regions which usually line up, or were expected to line up, with Japan.
Greenpeace followed this with a poll in Japan itself, which found that 77% of respondents did not support whaling on the high seas.
The IWC meeting in St Kitts and Nevis runs until Tuesday.