• The Associated Press

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Japan will seek permission to conduct a “broader and more comprehensive” research whaling program in the Antarctic when the International Whaling Commission holds its annual meeting in June, a Fisheries Agency official said Tuesday.

Having completed an 18-year research program focused on the small and relatively abundant minke species of whale, and killing several hundred each year to glean data on feeding and migration habits, Japan now wants to extend its activities, agency spokesman Takanori Nagatomo said.

“We plan to look at a broader picture of the ecological system,” he claimed. “We will conduct research that can examine the overall picture of the Earth’s environment. It will be a broader and more comprehensive program.”

Nagatomo refused to confirm reports that Japan is seeking permission from the IWC to hunt humpback and fin whales for research purposes, saying only that the new research request has been submitted to the IWC’s Scientific Committee. Kyodo News reported Tuesday that the whalers hope to kill about 10 of each type.

Japan’s research whaling program has for years been a divisive issue within the IWC, which banned commercial whaling in 1986.

Although it is allowed under the body’s bylaws, whaling opponents say Japan is using the research as a pretext to continue the commercial sale of whale meat. Meat from the whales killed for research is sold commercially, with the proceeds — about $52 million in 2003 — going back into funding for the annual hunts.

Tokyo has repeatedly failed to muster the 75 percent majority of IWC member nations needed to overturn the commercial whaling ban. It has recently threatened to quit the commission.

Each year, Japan kills about 400 minke whales in the Antarctic and another 210 whales — 100 minke whales, 50 Bryde’s whales, 50 sei whales and 10 sperm whales — in the Northwestern Pacific.

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