The International Whaling Commission is considering a plan to allow Japan to hunt whales, locally, in return for scaling back its activities in Antarctica.  Australia, which is one of six countries involved in the discussions, says negotiations are at a very early stage.  Conservationists say they are shocked by the proposal to reach a compromise deal with Japan. Under the plan, Japan would be allowed to engage in commercial whaling off its coast, in exchange for reducing the number of whales it plans to kill in the Southern Ocean.

Critics suspicious of Japan

Under international rules, the giant sea mammals are allowed to be killed for research but not to make money.  Critics have insisted that Japan's annual expeditions in Antarctica are a merely a cover for commercial whaling, which was banned in 1986.

Tokyo maintains that its whaling activities are solely for scientific research.  However, it offers the whale meat on the domestic commercial market.

Environmentalists have said they cannot believe that a suggestion to allow whales to be caught commercially is being considered by the International Whaling Commission, which oversees conservation issues.

Plan would be 'a disaster' environmentalists say

Patrick Ramage from the International Fund for Animal Welfare says the plan would be a disaster for whale populations.

"The proposal being put forward by the working group of the IWC is not to end scientific whaling by the government of Japan.  It's simply to export it.  And, make an arrangement whereby Japan could kill an equal number of whales in waters of the North Pacific," he said.

Australia has confirmed it is involved in discussions on the plan, along with representatives from Japan, New Zealand, Sweden, Brazil and the United States.

Canberra a 'long way' from accepting deal

Australian Foreign Minister Stephen Smith says his government is "a long way" from accepting the deal.

Mr. Smith insists that Canberra's policy on whaling remains the same and that the talks are at a very early stage.

"They're a long way from any formal proposal or formal suggestions or anything that the Australian government has agreed to," he noted.  "Our priority remains to Japanese ceasing whaling in the Great Southern Ocean and our overall objective is for whaling to end completely."

Japan hopes for resolution of long-time deadlock

A spokesman for the Japanese fisheries agency says his country is hoping to resolve a 23-year deadlock between pro- and anti-whaling members since the 84-member IWC imposed a moratorium on commercial whaling in the mid-1980s.

Japan's whaling fleet is currently engaged in its annual whale hunt in the icy waters of the Southern Ocean, where the fleet aims to catch about 900 whales.  Australia has called the expedition an "unnecessary slaughter."