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SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — South Korea plans to resume hunting whales for research purposes, officials said Thursday, drawing immediate protests from non-whaling nations and environment groups that suspect the plans may be a cover for commercial whaling.
South Korean officials conveyed the plan to the International Whaling Commission during an IWC meeting this week in Panama, according to Seoul's Ministry for Food, Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries.
The whaling would be aimed only at studying the types and amounts of fish whales eat as fishermen complain an increasing number of whales are consuming large amounts of fish stocks, ministry officials said.
The IWC gives member states sovereign rights to scientific whaling but South Korea will still give up its whaling plans if the international organization rejects them, the officials said on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to media.
Environmental groups decried the South Korean plans as a back-door effort to make the country only the fourth to allow commercial whaling, which has been banned since 1986. Various exceptions have allowed Japan, Iceland and Norway to hunt whales anyway. Indigenous groups in several countries also whale as allowed under international rules.
Japan claims its hunts are for research purposes, though the meat from the killed whales mostly ends up in restaurants, stores and school lunches. South Korean officials said they haven't determined what to do with the whale meat following the studies.
The leaders of Australia and New Zealand quickly condemned South Korea's plans and said they would raise diplomatic protests.
"We think it would be a terrible step in the wrong direction," New Zealand Prime Minister John Key said during a visit to Sydney.
Australian Julia Gillard told a news conference that she was "very disappointed" at the South Korean announcement. "We are completely opposed to whaling, there's no excuse for scientific whaling," she said.
"We believe this move is a thinly veiled attempt by Korea to conduct commercial whaling under the guise of scientific research, similar to hunts conducted by Japan in the Southern Ocean whale sanctuary," Wendy Elliott, head of global environmental group WWF's delegation to IWC, was quoted as saying in a statement.
South Korea still outlaws whaling for commercial purposes under the 1986 ban. The country briefly conducted a scientific hunt of mink whales in 1986 and it hunted three to four dolphins for similar purposes annually between 2004 and 2010, according to the South Korean fisheries ministry.
Australian FOREIGN Minister, Bob Carr has welcomed a decision by South Korea to rethink its resumption of "scientific" whaling and says he will speak directly to his Seoul counterpart about the issue today.
Speaking from Cambodia, where he is attending ASEAN talks, Senator Carr said he was heartened by reports that South Korea may scrap plans for scientific whaling if it can find non-lethal ways of studying the mammals.
“I welcome those reports, I haven't confirmed them as yet but I am looking forward to meeting the Foreign Minister of South Korea at this forum today and I will raise it with him,” Senator Carr told ABC radio.
“If South Korea makes this decision then it will confirm its reputation as a country seriously committed to the highest environmental standards, a country that is vying to be a green superpower. I think it would be extremely good for their reputation, a very positive thing.”
South Korea's apparent backflip follows international outrage over its move.
“We may not conduct whaling for scientific research if there is another way to achieve the goal,” Kang Joon-Suk, a senior official from the South Korean Ministry of Food, Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, said yesterday.
Julia Gillard had launched a formal diplomatic protest over the move and said Australia would not tolerate so-called “scientific” whaling.
Australia has already taken Japan to the International Court of Justice over its whaling program.
South Korea told an International Whaling Commission meeting in Panama last week that it would seek to resume whaling after banning hunts in 1986 in line with an IWC dictate.
If it goes ahead with its original plan, it would be the fourth country to kill whales, excluding allowances for indigenous groups.
Norway and Iceland openly defy the 1986 moratorium on commercial whaling, saying they believe stocks are healthy.
Japan already uses the loophole for scientific research, with the meat then going on dinner plates.
Whale meat is popular in the South Korean coastal town of Ulsan, which currently serves the remains of whales “accidentally” caught in nets.
Some 100 whales, most of them minke, are netted “accidentally” every year in South Korean waters.
Critics say the high rate of bycatch raises suspicions that some whales may be killed intentionally.