Portoro? (Slovenia) (AFP) - Japan pleaded with the world's whaling watchdog Wednesday to allow small hunts by coastal communities, arguing that for three decades these groups had been unjustly barred from a traditional source of food.
The issue of "small type coastal hunting" is a key dispute between pro- and anti-whaling nations gathered in Slovenia for the 66th meeting of the International Whaling Commission (IWC).
As in other years that the issue has come up, Japan's ambitions were backed by fellow whalers Norway and Iceland, and vehemently opposed by the United States, Europe, Australia and others.
All whaling other than for aboriginal subsistence or for scientific research is banned under an IWC moratorium introduced 30 years ago.
"There is this perception that we are asking (for the) total lifting of the moratorium, that is not the case," Japan's commissioner to the IWC, Joji Morishita told delegates .
"We are just asking for a small quota based on science, and of particular species in particular water. That's it."
Japan seeks a quota for minke whales in the West Pacific, and argues that stock numbers can sustain small hunts.
The takings would be "exclusively for local consumption" by four coastal communities, it said.
"I'm not asking other countries to change their basic positions," said Morishita, nor "to eat whale meat."
He urged other nations to look beyond their "principled position against whaling under any circumstances" in the quest for a compromise on this and other deeply divisive whaling questions.
- Not bad vs good -
"It's not like one side is bad and one side is good. This is not a dichotomy or a black and white situation," the commissioner said.
Along with Norway and Iceland, which argued the IWC was "held hostage" by anti-whalers, Japan's position was also supported by Russia.
"I think that we all have to remember that those four communities in Japan that have been asking for quota, they have a 5,000-year history of whaling," said Russia's deputy IWC commissioner, Valentin Ilyashenko.
"Our task is not only to conserve biodiversity but also to conserve culture and traditions."
The European Union and United States spoke out strongly against the proposal.
"We can only reiterate our stong support for the maintenance of the global moratorium on commercial whaling and our serious concerns about the impact of small type coastal whaling on whales," the Dutch commissioner Roel Feringa, said on behalf of the EU bloc.
For the US, commissioner Russell Smith said it was also an issue of values.
"Those values for the US include ensuring that our subsistence farmers have their right, have the access to the whales that they need, but they also include the value that we at this time should not be engaged in commercial whaling."
The disagreement sets Japan up for an even bigger clash later this week, about its annual whale killings in the name of scientific research -- which other nations claim is a cover-up for commercial hunting for meat.
New Zealand and Australia have submitted a proposal to the IWC for scientific hunts, which are allowed under a loophole in the moratorium, to be much more closely scrutinised.
If countries cannot agree on a compromise on the proposal, a vote will be held, probably on Thursday.
Norway, too, came under fire on Wednesday -- from conservation groups which accuse the IWC of giving the world's biggest whale hunter, a free ride.
Norway, which conducts commercial hunts under a formal objection it had lodged to the moratorium, took 736 minke whales in 2014, according to IWC numbers, compared to Japan's 196 -- 81 minke, 25 Bryde's whales and 90 sei whales.
With a dwindling appetite for whale meat in Norway, as in Iceland, much of the Norwegian catch is exported to Japan, and some used as animal feed, said Sandra Altherr of Pro Wildlife.
"Commercial whaling and trade is ongoing, and Norway is a huge part of that," she said. "But we don't see any diplomatic measures on Norway."