Japan appealed Wednesday to resume whaling along its coasts but faced heated opposition from Western and Latin American countries, which accused it of trying to end a moratorium on a commercial hunt.
Japan kills hundreds of whales each year on the high seas, infuriating Australia and New Zealand, by using a loophole in a 1986 moratorium on commercial whaling that allows lethal research on the ocean giants.
But Japan's whaling is limited near its own shores. In a proposal to International Whaling Commission talks in Panama, Japan called for a resumption of killing minke whales in its eastern coastal waters.
"The IWC's commercial whaling moratorium has caused us and our communities great distress for a quarter of a century," Yoshiichi Shimomichi, head of the Japan Small-Type Whaling Commission, told the conference.
"Our ancestors started utilizing beached whales thousands of years ago," he said. "Whale meat and blubber are integral parts of our culture ... with traditional practices handed down from generation to generation."
Australia's envoy Donna Petrachenko strongly criticized Japan's proposal, saying that, if approved, it would mean "completely undermining the moratorium."
Australia -- backed by the United States, New Zealand and most Latin American nations -- wants international experts to complete assessments on the minke population before allowing any coastal hunting.
"We think that efforts need to be made to recover this whale population and that states concerned should be putting their efforts into a conservation management plan and building this stock," Petrachenko said.
Faced with opposition, Japan did not immediately seek a vote. However, it could do so before the week-long talks end on Friday after consulting allies.
The Commission could also vote on a proposal by Denmark to extend aboriginal rights to hunt whales including humpbacks in Greenland. Latin American nations, along with Australia, India and other nations, opposed the proposal after environmentalists charged there was a surplus of whale meat in Greenland.
While not killing minke whales, Japan each year hunts thousands of other cetaceans unregulated by the International Whaling Commission off its coasts -- most notoriously dolphins, which the western town of Taiji spears to death.
Japan routinely calls for a resumption of commercial whaling but has not submitted proposals in recent years after intense but failed US-backed efforts to find a compromise in the deeply polarized Commission.
Wendy Elliot, the head of the delegation from the WWF conservation group, said that the Commission had been showing signs of moving forward to work together on threats to whales such as ship strikes and marine debris.
"I thought we had seen dramatic movement in the future of the IWC, but today it's back to the same old disputes over whaling," she said.
Japan's proposal enjoyed support from its allies in the developing world, along with Russia and South Korea, which both said they understood arguments about dietary traditions.
Russian delegate Valentin Ilyashenko said that he sought local food during the talks in Panama.
"Every visitor I see at restaurants asks for traditional Panamanian food, and as a rule they get a hamburger or pizza. I believe it's important to keep traditions and thus I support Japan's proposal," he said.