By Elaine Lies
TOKYO (Reuters) - Japan could try to rescue its Antarctic whaling program 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" program, although Tokyo, which said it would abide by the ruling, might be able to resume Antarctic whaling if it devises a new, more persuasive program 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 ICJ agreed with plaintiff Australia's position that the scientific research resulting from the Antarctic whaling did not justify the number of whales killed.
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.
But with its whaling fleet in need of refurbishing and consumer interest in whale meat low, some observers said the court ruling might give the government the chance to abandon an expensive program - and improve its international standing.
One of the most likely possibilities, though, is that Tokyo will submit a revamped research whaling program for approval by the International Whaling Commission (IWC), which oversees international management of whales.
"One thing Japan needs to do is make its scientific goals match the number of whales that it takes," said Masayuki Komatsu, formerly Japan's chief whaling negotiator.
"It's actually okay to hunt even more whales. But what will happen is that the number of whales taken will decrease," added Komatsu, now a visiting research professor at the International Centre for the Study of East Asian Development.
More than half of IWC members oppose whaling, a situation that has long prompted Japan to call the body "dysfunctional," so obtaining approval for any new proposals could be tough, Japanese media said.
The U.N. tribunal said no further licenses should be issued for scientific whaling, in which animals are first examined for research purposes before the meat is sold.
"The research objectives must be sufficient to justify the lethal sampling," said Presiding Judge Peter Tomka of Slovakia.
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.
Japan signed a 1986 ban 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.
The research whaling is needed to assess whether whale stocks are recovering from overfishing, Japan has said.
Whaling was once widespread around the world but Japan is now one of only a handful of countries, including Iceland and Norway, that keep it up on a large scale.
But despite the fact that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe himself hails from one of Japan's whaling regions, the ruling might not be entirely unwelcome in some parts of the government, said Jun Morikawa, who has written on whaling and politics in Japan.
"It was an unexpected decision but if they say they accept it there are no other options," said Morikawa, a professor at Rakuno Gakuen University in the northern island of Hokkaido.
"I get the impression that a lot of people in government may be relieved ... It gives them a chance to stop, they can say that Japan fought hard but now needs to accept the result."
(Writing by Linda Sieg and Elaine Lies,; Editing by Paul Tait and Clarence Fernandez)