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CANBERRA (Reuters) - Australia urged Japan to abandon its yearly whale hunt on Monday, launching its own scientific whaling study in the Southern Ocean to prove it was not necessary to kill the ocean mammals to study them.
Japan's annual cull, carried out for what it says is scientific research, will begin in weeks.
Tokyo has denied reports it plans to lower its quota target by 20 percent, meaning that its fleet could again harpoon close to 900 fin and minke whales around Antarctica in coming months.
"Modern-day research uses genetic and molecular techniques as well as satellite tags, acoustic methods and aerial surveys rather than grenade-tipped harpoons," Australian Environment Minister Peter Garrett told reporters.
Garrett said Australia would fund a scientific research program hopefully involving other countries and would send an invitation to Japan to take part. The $3.8 million research study would include aerial surveys, genetic analysis and tagging.
"Australia does not believe that we need to kill whales to understand them," Garrett said. Activists say the research hunt is a front for commercial whaling, outlawed under an internationally agreed moratorium.
Japan, which considers whaling to be a cherished cultural tradition, abandoned commercial whaling in accordance with the international moratorium in 1986, but began what it calls a scientific research whaling program the following year.
Canberra last year sent a customs and fisheries icebreaker to shadow anti-whaling activists and the Japanese fleet, gathering photo evidence of the yearly research hunt for a possible international legal case against Tokyo.
Garrett said on Monday a legal case was still under consideration, but no decision yet had been made whether to send another patrol boat south this Antarctic summer amid threats from the hardline Sea Shepherd protest group to disrupt the hunt.
Editing by Mark Bendeich