Seen from the observer seats in this huge echoing hall, the International Whaling Commission (IWC) annual meeting in Panama was like a tug of war in slow motion as the voting blocs surged back and forth.

The struggle was for the future of the IWC with one bloc trying to drag the commission into the present day as the other dug in to stop that and drag it back to the days of whaling.

Lofty points of principle intended to move us forward collided with detailed interpretations of the ‘Rules of Procedure’ invoked to hold us back.

It’s not just one tug of war though – it’s several. Some went well, some not so well.

Real efforts are being made to transform the IWC into a conservation organisation with one member suggesting it be renamed the International Whales Commission. But on the same day Korea announced that it wanted to start ‘scientific’ whaling.

Some things appeared to be going two ways at once. For example, the vote on the South Atlantic whale sanctuary showed strong support for the sanctuary, including support from all its African and South American range states. But it failed because of Japan’s vote buying.

On the whole though, the tone was positive. Although the sides don’t agree, at least they are willing to take votes in public instead of staging walkouts to prevent decisions as Japan did last year.

And even as arguments about whaling continue, the IWC is developing recovery plans to try and repair the damage done to whales, starting with the most critically endangered populations.

A hundred years from now, no one will remember the squabbles in a meeting hall in Panama, but if the South Pacific right whale of Chile and Peru and the humpbacks of the Arabian Sea are flourishing, they will know who won the tug of war.