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TOKYO, April 15 (Reuters) - The group that conducts Japan's whaling says it expects to resume scientific whaling in the Antarctic after this year's hunt was cancelled in the wake of an international court ruling ordering a halt to the disputed programme.
The judgment by the International Court of Justice (ICJ) last month was a blow to Japan's decades-old "scientific whaling" in the Southern Ocean, a practice environmentalists condemn, but Tokyo said it would abide by the decision and has cancelled the 2014-2015 hunt.
But court papers filed in the United States by the Institute for Cetacean Research, which, with Kyodo Sempaku, actually carries out the whaling, said they expect to conduct hunts in future seasons - albeit with a modified programme.
In the filing in a Seattle court last week, the two groups sought an injunction against Sea Shepherd, an environmental group that has pursued Japan's whaling ships during their Antarctic hunts over the past few years. They noted that the Japanese government had not granted permits for the next season.
"Plaintiffs expect they will be conducting a Southern Ocean research program for subsequent seasons that would be in accord with the ICJ decision," they added, according to the papers, which were obtained by Reuters.
An Institute spokesman declined to comment, citing the court case and adding that any decisions about whether it would resume whaling would be made by the government.
Japan's Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga on Tuesday reiterated that the government has yet to make a decision but it may not take much longer.
"At the moment we are carefully analyzing the content of the ruling," Suga told a news conference. "After analyzing what the issues are, the government will come up with a policy course."
Japan has long maintained that most whale species are in no danger of extinction and scientific whaling is necessary to manage what it sees as a marine resource that, after World War Two, was an important protein source for an impoverished nation.
Japan also conducts separate hunts in the northern Pacific, while its fishermen engage in small-scale coastal whaling. An annual dolphin slaughter has also drawn harsh global criticism.
In its ruling, the ICJ said no further licenses should be issued for scientific whaling, in which animals are first examined for research purposes before the meat is sold, noting that the research objectives had to be sufficient to "justify the lethal sampling".
At the time of the court ruling, observers said that one possibility could indeed be for Japan to scale back its whaling plan and submit a new proposal for approval by the ICJ.
"When the ICJ verdict was issued, I ... could see the potential for the Institute for Cetacean Research to re-write their program and to return," Sea Shepherd founder Paul Watson said on the organisation's website.
"My prediction was that they would return for the 2015-2016 season. It seems that this is exactly what they intend to do."
But other observers say that with Japan's whaling fleet in need of refurbishing and consumer interest in whale meat low, the court ruling might give the government the chance to abandon an expensive programme - and improve its international standing. (Writing by Elaine Lies,; Additional reporting by David Levine in SEATTLE and Tetsuji Kajimoto in TOKYO; Editing by Clarence Fernandez)