* Groups fear Japan deal could create whaling loophole
* Pact could see S.Korea resume whaling, groups say
ROME, March 11 (Reuters) - Anti-whaling groups fear South Korea and other countries will try to resume whaling if Japan gets permission for limited catches on its coasts in return for stopping so-called "scientific" whaling in Antarctica.
Lobby groups following an International Whaling Commission (IWC) panel meeting in Rome ending on Wednesday said diplomatic efforts for a compromise with Japan could, by creating a new "coastal" catch category, open up a new loophole for whaling.
IWC Chairman Bill Hogarth said in a statement after the Rome talks that "opinions differ among the members" but that he hoped for agreement by the IWC's annual meeting in Madeira in June.
Japan officially observes the 1986 global moratorium on whaling -- unlike Iceland and Norway, which ignore it and carry out commercial whaling. But Japan still catches about 900 whales a year in Antarctic waters for what it calls research purposes.
Japan, which defends its right to scientific catches and says killing whales is no different from slaughtering any other animal, has also long sought a quota of 150 minke whales for coastal areas it says have been impoverished by the moratorium.
Most of the meat from scientific catches still ends up on dinner tables, angering animal welfare groups around the world who argue that many species face extinction and that explosive harpoons used by whalers can cause horrific suffering.
A panel of the IWC -- set up in 1946 to conserve stocks -- is seeking a compromise deal for its annual meeting in Madeira in June to let Japan hunt minkes off its coast in return for ending Antarctic whaling or limiting it to sustainable levels.
"This sets a really dangerous precedent which South Korea underlined by saying that 'if Japan has impoverished coastal communities and wants a quota, then so have we'," said Claire Bass of the World Society for the Protection of Animals (WSPA).
"This would open the floodgates for commercial whaling," the WSPA marine mammal programme manager told Reuters in Rome.
Nicolas Entrup, spokesman for the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society (WDCS), said minke whales in Korean waters already faced extinction because of "by-catching" -- when whales are accidentally caught in fishing nets, then sold for eating -- and would face an accelerated threat if Korea resumes whaling.
"We should be closing the loopholes that permit whaling rather than creating new loopholes," Entrup told Reuters.
Korean whaling helped supply the Japanese market for much of the 20th century, especially during Japanese occupation. It had a "scientific" catch of about 69 whales in 1986 but has since mostly abided by the global moratorium declared that year. (Editing by Jon Boyle)
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