CANBERRA (Reuters) - Whaling nations including Japan could be allowed to resume limited commercial hunting for the first time in 24 years under a draft plan drawn up by a working group of the International Whaling Commission.
The draft aims to sharply reduce the number of whales culled under a loophole in the international ban which allows hunting for scientific purposes, in return for strict limits on the number of mammals killed. It did not suggest a quota limit.
Scientific whaling would also be brought under the control of the 88-member IWC in a compromise aimed at ending a split in the IWC between anti-whaling nations and pro-whaling countries Japan, Norway and Iceland.
"The commission will establish caps of takes that are within sustainable levels for a 10-year period," the draft said.
The proposal, released by International Whaling Commission support group chairman Cristian Maquieira, of Chile, hopes to prevent the collapse of the IWC over long-running differences between countries.
Other proposals drawn up over more than a year of closed-door talks include a reduction in scientific catches from current levels of around 1,000 whales each year, and limiting commercial whaling to the three nations that currently hunt them.
The draft called for improving the animal welfare aspects of whaling and close monitoring of the impact on whale populations of climate change and other environmental threats.
The draft, to be debated by a small group of countries in Florida from March 2 to 4, could overcome deep divisions over whaling because it would give anti-whaling countries some control over self-imposed quotas set by the whalers.
Commercial whaling was banned under a 1986 moratorium, but Japan aims to harpoon up to 935 minke whales and 50 fin whales, classified as endangered, in the Southern Ocean during the current Southern Hemisphere summer for research purposes.
Tokyo is also considering a deal which would allow it to drastically scale back its yearly Antarctic hunt provided it is allowed to whale commercially in Japanese coastal waters.
The IWC ad hoc working group plan was drawn up by a small group of nations including Japan and Iceland, as well as anti-whaling countries like Australia, New Zealand and the United States. They were drawn together with other countries including Sweden, Brazil, Cameroon and Mexico.
The draft stressed nothing had been agreed ahead of the next annual IWC meeting, which would vote on the plan in Morocco in June, but environment groups immediately condemned any ideas that could lead to a resumption of commercial whaling in any form.
"We are at a critical juncture for both whaling and ocean conservation. A return to commercial whaling would not only be a disaster for whales but will send shock waves through international ocean conservation efforts," said Greenpeace Australia Pacific Chief Executive Linda Selvey.
Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd last week set Japan a November deadline to stop Southern Ocean whaling or face an international legal challenge, launched by his government.
Environmentalists have accused Australia of retreating on threats of an International Court of Justice whaling challenge to avoid hurting Australia's $58 billion trade ties with Tokyo.
Australian Greens party leader Bob Brown accused Rudd of hypocrisy given Canberra's involvement in the secret IWC talks.
"This is out-of-sight, out-of-mind planning involving the Australian government," Brown said.
Environment group WWF said the compromise contained some positive elements for whale conservation that would help bring the IWC into the 21st Century, but it could also legitimize whaling by Japan in the Southern Ocean.
"What we have now is a deal which could make it even easier for Japan to continue taking whales in this ecologically unique place," said Rob Nicoll, WWF-Australia's Antarctic and Southern Ocean Initiative Manager.
Editing by Sugita Katyal