TOKYO -- The International Whaling Commission has proposed allowing whales to be hunted under strict quotas, bringing the world a step closer to the first legal commercial whaling in nearly 25 years.
The proposal, released late Thursday, would allow Japan, Norway and Iceland -- which hunt whales under a variety of exceptions to a 1986 moratorium -- to catch whales for 10 years, but under strict limits set by the IWC that would reduce the overall catch.
The proposal would scrap the exceptions, which include reasons such as scientific research and which opponents have said were merely murky excuses for commercial whaling, and instead simply allow current whaling countries to hunt whales in limited numbers for commercial, research or other reasons.
Japan's self-imposed annual quota of 935 Antarctic minke whales, which are not endangered, would be lowered to 400 over the next five years, then reduced to 200 for the next five years. The country's current take of 320 sei and minke whales in waters near Japan would be cut to 210.
The proposal is an attempted compromise between pro-whaling nations and opponents such as the United States and Australia. The commission argues that allowing whaling under strict quotas would be an improvement to the current hunts, over which it has no control. Various small indigenous groups could continue to hunt in limited numbers.
The IWC is preparing for a general meeting in June in Morocco, where it will debate the proposal.
Environmental groups were quick to criticize the proposal, which they say could lead to an eventual return to the large-scale whaling of the past, which devastated many species.
"At the moment, it appears that the whales are making all the concessions, not the whalers and this proposal keeps dying whaling industries alive and not the whales," said Greenpeace Japan Program Director Junichi Sato in a statement.
Despite a 1986 moratorium on whaling, Japan hunts whales for scientific reasons. Excess meat is sold for consumption, leading critics to call the program a mere cover for commercial hunts. Norway and Iceland also defy the ban under other exceptions. Together, they have an annual cap of about 3,000 whales, 10 times as many as in 1993.
The newest proposal from the commission's chairman suggested specific catch quotas for various species in specific waters. It would allow 69 bowhead whales, 145 gray whales, 14 humpbacks and 109 fin whales to be hunted each year around the world.
Japanese officials were cautiously positive on the scheme, which would allow it to commercially hunt whales, including those close to its shores.
"A catch quota for minke whales in Japanese small-type coastal whaling is our long-term cherished desire, and under the framework proposed by the chair, that desire can be realized," said Fisheries Agency official Toshinori Uoya.
Japan started its annual scientific hunts along its northern coasts on Thursday, aiming to catch up to 60 minke whales until early June.
However, some criticized the proposed limits on minke hunts, which would be about half of Japan's current quota from research whaling. Agriculture Minister Hirotaka Akamatsu said Tokyo would "persistently continue negotiations" to address this "gap."
But the proposed cap isn't much different from Japan's actual catch of minkes in the Antarctic because Japan's annual whaling expedition has been disrupted by ships from the conservationist group Sea Shepherd. Japan's catch from the Antarctic has fallen to about 500 whales in recent years.
New Zealand Foreign Minister Murray McCully said the IWC's proposal does not deliver what New Zealand wants -- that it must be significantly better than the status quo and meet the country's commitment to end whaling in the southern ocean.
"The catch limits proposed in the southern ocean are unrealistic. The proposal to include (endangered) fin whales in the southern ocean is inflammatory. New Zealanders will not accept this," he said in a statement.
On the front lawn of New Zealand's Parliament, about 100 Greenpeace anti-whaling protesters Friday held black whale-tail placards aloft with "RIP?" written across them in white letters.
The commission was formed in 1946 to deal with whaling issues and has 88 member countries.