Japan rejected a report on Thursday that it would cut by 20 per cent the number of whales it planned to hunt in the Southern Ocean because of anti-whaling protests, but said it would keep its moratorium on catching humpbacks.
The Asahi Shimbun daily reported that Japan aimed to cut its target to 700 minke and 50 fin whales in the southern summer hunt, due to start shortly, which Australia's environment minister said would be the first cut in numbers since Japan started its current whaling programme 21 years ago.
Japan, which considers whaling to be a cherished cultural tradition, abandoned commercial whaling in accordance with an international moratorium in 1986, but began what it calls a scientific research whaling programme the following year.
A government official said there was no truth to the Asahi report, which said the reduced target was because of high-seas skirmishes with anti-whaling activists in recent years and dwindling demand for the meat from Japanese consumers.
"There is no change to our plans," said Toshinori Uoya, assistant director of the far seas fisheries division at the Fisheries Agency.
Japan still planned to hunt around 850 minke whales and 50 fin whales, the same target as last year, Uoya said.
It would also continue to avoid killing humpback whales for now, while the International Whaling Commission (IWC) held talks on "normalising" its functions, he added.
Previous plans to hunt humpbacks had sparked an outcry from activists, with the endangered whales popular among whale watchers for their distinctive silhouette and acrobatic leaps.
Japan's annual hunts have led to heated clashes between whalers and activists, with activists boarding a whaling ship last year and Japan and Australia exchanging complaints, although both agreed not to let the issue hurt diplomatic ties.
Japan said sabotage by activists reduced its catch to 551 whales last season.
"We plan to do all that we can to prepare ourselves against protests this season, although we can't go into detail on what we will do," Uoya said.
Australia's Environment Minister Peter Garrett, citing the Asahi report in parliament, said that any reduction in Japan's whaling target would be an encouraging sign that international opposition to scientific whaling was having an effect.
"Since 1987, the target has only increased, including more than doubling the number of whales targeted between 2004/05 and 2005/06," he said.