Disputed reports state Japan is set to withdraw from the International Whaling Commission, a move that would free it to resume commercial whaling.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s government will approve the measure on Tuesday – Christmas Day – according to the Nikkei Asia Review on Thursday, citing unnamed government sources.

Kyodo News Agency carried similar reports on Thursday, but Japanese government officials denied the country will leave the IWC by the end of the year.

The reported move to withdraw from the IPC drew immediate howls of protest from prominent environmental group Greenpeace. “Greenpeace condemns the Japan government’s decision,” the NGO tweeted. “We must protect these majestic creatures and their ocean home.”

The IWC imposed a moratorium on commercial whaling in 1986, but Japan, while ostensibly following the IWC dictate, engages in a highly controversial  “scientific cull” in the Antarctic. In recent seasons, the Japanese whalers have taken 333 whales per year from the Southern Ocean.

In September, Japan tabled a motion at the IWC to resume sustainable commercial whaling of species which are not endangered, but was voted down 41-27 other members.

If Japan does resume commercial whaling, it will restrict the hunt to its exclusive economic zone, according to Japanese media. That would essentially mean that whaling operations would shift from the Southern Ocean to its own waters – though likely on a larger scale.

Japan is not alone in whaling. Iceland and Norway also carry out whaling operations in defiance of the IWC, Greenpeace and much international public opinion.

Whale meat is a delicacy in Japan, but is not widely eaten. Despite the tiny size of the industry – which only employs about 1,000 people and owns six aging vessels – a strong whaling lobby exists: The whaling industry is concentrated in the electoral district of Prime Minister Abe, and is supported – arguably, more for emotive than economic reasons – by his Liberal Democratic Party.

With AFP