A long-running campaign to turn a huge swathe of the South Atlantic Ocean into a whale sanctuary have been blocked by whaling nations at a crucial vote.

The campaign, led by South American countries, was defeated at the International Whaling Commission meeting in Panama.

Despite gaining support from more than half of the nations involved, the bid failed to gain a three quarter majority, with 38 votes for and 21 against.

The vote against the bid was led by Japan, one of world's most active whaling countries. Japan was supported by Russia and China, as well as whaling countries Norway and Iceland.

Countries that voted in favour of the bid included Brazil, South Africa, Australia, Uruguay and Argentina.

However it was smaller nations that swung the vote, with places like Tuvalu, Kiribatu, Palau and Nauru, also voting against the bid, which hoped to increase whale protection and whale watching in the area.

Jose Truda Palazzo who led the charge for the sanctuary during his time as Brazil's representative to the IWC, told AFP: "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.

"You can't really believe that Bauru or Tuvalu has an interest or has studied the sanctuary. They are voting because Japan tells them too."

Marco Pinta Gama, Brazil's commissioner to the IWC told BBC News that he was pleased that the vote had taken place, but obviously disappointed with the result.

He argued that ecotourism and whale watching were growing industries in coastal areas and would have been bolstered by the protection action.

"In many countries including Brazil, those activities are bringing in financial resources to local communities, it's really expanding, and we think the sanctuary would very much strengthen this kind of activity in the region," he said.

Japan, which continues whaling by exporting a loophole in sanctions which makes allowances for lethal scientific research, argued that commercial whaling was already banned, making the sanctuary an unecessary extra level of protection.

Norway and Iceland are the only countries that ignore the moratorium on whaling, although they only hunt in nearby waters.

The slaughter continues

Despite the IWC banning commercial whaling in 1986, whales continue to be killed in their hundreds.

Japan's 'scientific permit' exception is a provision found within the International Convention on the Regulation of Whaling, which allows nations to conduct fatal scientific studies. The meat can then be sold commercially.

Since the ban on commercial whaling, Japan has killed more than 8,200 minke whales in the Antarctic. Norway broke the ban in 1993 and resumed commercial whaling. They have since taken more than 6,800 minke whales.

Environmentalists have argued repeatedly for the closing of whaling loopholes, pointing to a 75 percent drop in Japan's meat sales in the last year.