By David Spaic-Kovacic and Marja Novak
PORTOROZ, Slovenia (Reuters) - The International Whaling Commission (IWC) declared on Thursday that countries would in future need its approval to hunt whales for scientific research, but critics said the move would have little practical effect.
The decision is intended to close a legal loophole that allows Japan to hunt some 300 whales a year, despite a 30-year-old global moratorium on commercial whaling.
But the IWC, which is holding its plenary meeting in the Slovenian seaside town of Portoroz, has no enforcement powers, meaning no new practical limits will be placed on Japan's whaling.
Japan says its scientific research program, involving examining carcasses to determine their age, is needed to better understand how whale numbers can be sustained. Its critics say that is a pretext for hunting the animals, whose meat is eventually sold for food.
While some campaigners welcomed Thursday's IWC decision, which came after Japan and its allies succeeded on Tuesday in blocking a proposal for a South Atlantic whale sanctuary, others worried that it would have few practical consequences.
"The International Whaling Commission doesn't have any teeth," said Nicolas Entrup, a consultant for Swiss NGO Oceancare.
"So it's all about goodwill. And I doubt that Japan is ready."
In future, scientific whaling permits will be issued by a standing IWC committee, on which the country applying will have only observer status.
A Japanese representative declined to comment, but New Zealand's IWC commissioner Amy Laurenson welcomed the decision, which she called "a small step forward ... we'll continue to work to see this outdated practice brought to an end."
Whaling was once a global industry, but as stocks have dwindled only a handful of countries still engage in it.
(Reporting by David Spaic-Kovacic and Marja Novak; editing by Thomas Escritt and Andrew Roche)