By Elaine Lies
TOKYO (Reuters) - Japan said on Friday it would conduct a sharply scaled down form of its annual Northwest Pacific whaling campaign this year despite an international court ruling last month against the mainstay of its whaling program in the Antarctic.
The decision to proceed with the hunt was certain to provoke international anger and promptly drew the fire of environmentalists.
Tokyo's decades-old and disputed "scientific whaling" program suffered a blow last month when the International Court of Justice (ICJ), in a surprise ruling, ordered a halt to its annual hunts in the Southern Ocean. That prompted Japan to cancel whaling there for 2014-2015.
The Pacific hunt, not as widely known internationally, was not specifically mentioned in the ruling, which did call on Japan to re-examine its overall whaling program. Yet in the 2012-2013 campaign, the Pacific hunt took three times as many whales as the Antarctic hunt, including three sperm whales.
Yoshimasa Hayashi, Minister of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, said the ruling upheld the notion of "the sustainable use of whales as a resource".
"Based on this ... and in line with international law and scientific principles, our nation will carry out research whaling to get the scientific information essential to manage whales as a resource," he said.
Japan has long maintained that most whale species are not endangered and began what it called scientific whaling in 1987, a year after an international moratorium came into effect.
It has also said it hopes for the eventual resumption of commercial whaling, a view Hayashi said was unchanged.
"We will stick to a basic plan that aims at a resumption of commercial whaling," he told reporters. Japan, he said, had made "substantial accommodations" to the court ruling.
The ministry said quotas for the Pacific hunt would be reduced in consideration of the court ruling. One proposal, still to be finalized by scientists, would cut the number from 380 whales to 210 in activity extending from Japan's coastline out into a broad swathe of the Pacific.
In the 2012-2013 season, the fleet killed 319 whales in the Pacific. The Antarctic hunt took 103 whales out of a quota of more than 1,000, partly due to the sometimes violent attempts by environmental groups, such as Sea Shepherd, to disrupt it.
According to the proposal, no sperm whales will be taken and the quota of minkes will be reduced to 100 from 220.
NEW PLAN, NEW MEASURES AGAINST PROTESTERS
The ministry said it would submit a new plan for Antarctic whaling to the International Whaling Commission in 2015 for the purpose of resuming whaling in that area later in the year.
"We will also consider measures against anti-whaling activists," the ministry said.
Japan says eating whale is a cherished cultural tradition, but costly whale meat now rarely appears on Japanese tables.
Fears of complaints from key allies such as the United States, as well as the cost of maintaining Japan's ageing whaling fleet, prompted some observers to say Tokyo might cancel the Pacific hunt this year.
But a vocal lobby pressed for it to continue, citing economic benefits to the Pacific hunt's home port of Ishinomaki,
devastated by the 2011 tsunami.
No details were given about when the fleet would depart. It was originally set to leave on April 22, the day before U.S. President Barack Obama arrives in Japan for a state visit, but media reports said its departure would be delayed until April 26, the day after Obama leaves.
Environmental group Greenpeace said the decision to proceed with hunt was a disappointment.
"This defiant announcement, mere days before President Obama's visit to Japan, will damage Japan's international standing," said Junichi Sato, at Greenpeace Japan.
(Editing by Ron Popeski)