TOKYO – TOKYO (AP) — Japan cautiously welcomed an International Whaling Commission proposal Friday that would effectively allow the resumption of commercial whaling for the first time in 25 years — though under strict quotas that the commission argues will reduce the global catch of the mammals.
Despite a 1986 moratorium on whaling, Japan, Norway and Iceland catch whales for various IWC-sanctioned purposes, including scientific research — which opponents such as Australia and conservation activists say are a cover for commercial whaling.
The proposal, to be debated at the IWC's meeting in June in Morocco, seeks to strike a compromise between the two sides by allowing whaling nations to hunt without specifying commercial or otherwise — but in lower numbers than they are now. The commission was formed in 1946 to deal with whaling issues and has 88 member countries.
Environmental groups have decried the proposal as a huge step backward. But supporters argue 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.
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 coastal waters would be cut to 210.
Tokyo, long the most prominent target of anti-whaling activists, called the draft "significant progress."
"We praise it for adding small-type coastal whaling, which we have patiently and persistently asked for," said Agriculture Minister Hirotaka Akamatsu. "It's good that (the proposal) openly acknowledges whaling rather than under a category like research, which carries a nuance that it should be restricted."
Japan still needs to push hard to fill "a big gap" between its requested total catch quota and the cap presented in the proposal, he said.
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.
"It throws a lifeline to a dying industry when endangered whale populations face more threats than ever before," said Patrick Ramage, whale program director of a U.S.-based International Fund for Animal Welfare.
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 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.
New Zealand Foreign Minister Murray McCully said the IWC's proposal does not deliver what his country 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," he said. "New Zealanders will not accept this."
Associated Press Writers Jay Alabaster and Malcolm Foster in Tokyo and Ray Lilley in Wellington, New Zealand, contributed to this report.