Japan announced Wednesday that it is leaving the International Whaling Commission to resume commercial hunts for the animals for the first time in 30 years, but said it would no longer go to the Antarctic for its much-criticized annual killings.
Japan switched to what it calls research whaling after the IWC imposed a moratorium on commercial whaling in the 1980s, and now says stocks have recovered enough to resume commercial hunts.
Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said Japan would resume commercial whaling in July "in line with Japan's basic policy of promoting sustainable use of aquatic living resources based on scientific evidence."
He added that Japan is disappointed that the IWC — which he said is dominated by conservationists — focuses on the protection of whale stocks even though the commission has a treaty mandate for both whale conservation and the development of the whaling industry.
"Regrettably, we have reached a decision that it is impossible in the IWC to seek the coexistence of states with different views," he said.
Suga said the commercial hunts would be limited to Japan's territorial waters and its 200-mile (323-kilometer) exclusive economic zone along Japan's coasts. He said Japan would stop its annual whaling expeditions to the Antarctic and northwest Pacific oceans, noting that non-signatory states are not allowed to do so.
The IWC imposed the moratorium on commercial whaling three decades ago due to a dwindling whale population. Japan switched to what is calls research whaling, but the program was criticized as a cover for commercial hunting since the meat is sold on the market at home.
The environmental group Greenpeace condemned the Wednesday's announcement and disputed Japan's view that whale stocks have recovered, noting also that ocean life is being threatened by pollution as well as overfishing.
"The declaration today is out of step with the international community, let alone the protection needed to safeguard the future of our oceans and these majestic creatures," Sam Annesley, executive director at Greenpeace Japan, said in a statement. "The government of Japan must urgently act to conserve marine ecosystems, rather than resume commercial whaling."
Australia's government, often a vocal critic of Japan's whaling policies, said in a statement that it was "extremely disappointed" with Japan's decision to quit the commission.
However, New Zealand Foreign Minister Winston Peters joined Australia in welcoming Japan's withdrawal from the southern ocean. Japan was the only country with an ambition to return to commercial whaling in the Antarctic Ocean.
Japanese Fisheries Agency official and longtime IWC negotiator Hideki Moronuki said Japan would use the IWC's method to carefully determine a catch quota, but declined to give an estimate.
Japan has hunted whales for centuries, but has reduced its catch following international protests and declining demand for whale meat at home. The withdrawal from the IWC may be a face-saving step to stop Japan's ambitious Antarctic hunts and scale down the scope of whaling to around the Japanese coasts.
Japan slashed its annual quota in the Antarctic by about one third after a 2014 International Court of Justice ruling that the country's research whaling program wasn't as scientific as Japan had argued. Japan currently hunts about 600 whales annually in the Antarctic and the Northern Pacific.
Fisheries officials have said Japan annually consumes thousands of tons of whale meat from the research hunts, mainly by older Japanese seeking a nostalgic meal. But critics say they doubt commercial whaling could be a sustainable industry if younger Japanese don't view the animals as food.
Suga said Japan would notify the IWC of its decision by Dec. 31 and remains committed to international cooperation on proper management of marine life even after its IWC withdrawal.
Associated Press writer Steve McMorran contributed to this report.