TOKYO Japan is considering scrapping a Northwest Pacific whale hunt just days before the fleet's planned departure, media said on Thursday, as the government grapples with its response to an international court ruling against its main whale hunt.
In a blow to Tokyo's decades-old and disputed "scientific whaling" program, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) last month ordered a halt to its annual hunts in the Southern Ocean, prompting Japan to cancel its 2014-2015 Antarctic hunt, the program's mainstay, as it pledged to abide by the ruling.
The judgment did not specifically mention Japan's other whaling hunts, one small-scale one off its coastline and the other across a wide swath of the Northwest Pacific during the spring and summer, with a quota of nearly 400 whales.
But Tokyo, trapped between the demands of pro-whaling lawmakers and international pressure from allies such as the United States, is considering calling off the Pacific hunt too, the Yomiuri Shimbun daily said.
"The government is currently racking its brains about whether or not to allow the Northwest Pacific whaling, set to start on April 22, to take place," the paper said, adding that the timing - with U.S. President Barack Obama scheduled to arrive in Japan on April 23 - was unfortunate.
Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga told a news conference that the government was looking at the issue.
"All aspects are being considered as the government studies the ruling and decides how it will respond," added Suga.
On Thursday, a group of ruling party lawmakers asked Kazuyoshi Honkawa, director-general of the Fisheries Agency, to delay the fleet's departure until April 26, the day after Obama leaves, and Honkawa said he would look into it.
"The government is aware of this move," Suga told a later news conference, adding that a decision on the program should come soon.
The ICJ's judgment centered on the Antarctic hunt, which has a catch quota of just over 1,000 whales - including minke, fin whales and humpbacks - saying there was insufficient evidence that the research objectives justified "the lethal sampling".
"When you study the ruling, it contains a section where they call on Japan to take another look at its whaling program," said an official at the Fisheries Agency. "So there may well be an impact on other research whaling too."
The take in recent years has fallen off sharply, in part due to campaigns by anti-whaling groups, with only 103 minke killed in 2012-2013. By contrast, the Pacific hunt, which has garnered little attention, took 319 whales against its quota of 360 that same year, including three sperm whales.
The groups which carry out the whaling program said last week in a court filing that they expect to resume whaling in the Antarctic from the 2015-2016 season, albeit with a modified program.
Other observers say Japan might see this as a good chance to get out of whaling, given the expense of running the program and refurbishing its ageing fleet even as appetite for whale drops.
(Editing by Nick Macfie)