TOKYO, April 1 (Reuters) - Japan could try to rescue its Antarctic whaling programme by sharply reducing catch quotas after the highest U.N. court ordered a halt, rejecting Tokyo's argument that the catch was for scientific purposes and not mainly for human consumption.
The judgment by the International Court of Justice (ICJ) was a blow to Japan's decades-old "scientific whaling" programme, although Tokyo - which said it would abide by the ruling - might be able to resume Antarctic whaling if it devises a new, more persuasive programme that requires killing whales.
"We want to accept this from a position that respects the international legal order," Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida told reporters. "We want to properly consider our country's response after carefully examining the contents of the ruling."
The government was likely to submit to the International Whaling Commission (IWC) a new "scientific whaling" programme with sharply reduced catch quotas in an effort to resume the annual hunts, the Asahi newspaper said on Tuesday
Th outlook was tough, however, with more than half of the IWC members now opposed to whaling, the newspaper said.
The ICJ ruling agreed with plaintiff Australia's position that the scientific research resulting from the Antarctic whaling did not justify the number of whales killed.
Japan also conducts separate hunts in the northern Pacific, while Japanese fishermen carry out small-scale coastal whaling. An annual dolphin slaughter has also been the object of harsh global criticism.
The U.N. tribunal said no further licences should be issued for scientific whaling, where animals are first examined for research purposes before the meat is sold to consumers.
"The research objectives must be sufficient to justify the lethal sampling," said Presiding Judge Peter Tomka of Slovakia.
Japan signed a 1986 moratorium on whaling but has continued to hunt up to 850 minke whales in the icy waters of the Southern Ocean, as well as smaller numbers of fin and humpback whales, citing a 1946 treaty that permits killing the giant mammals for research. Japan has said the research whaling is needed to assess whether whale stocks are recovering from overfishing.
Whaling was once widespread around the world but Japan is now one of only a handful of countries, including Iceland and Norway, that continue the practice on a large scale.
While some Japanese view whale meat as a delicacy and whalers and the government argue whaling is an important tradition, consumers' appetite for the meat has shrunk even as the hunts made Japan a target of much international opprobrium. (Writing by Linda Sieg; Editing by Paul Tait)