A minke whale harpooned by the Japanese whaling vessel Yushin Maru No.2 in the Southern Ocean, Feb. 7, 2008. Japan has scaled back the number of whales it plans to hunt in the Antarctic next year from 1,035 whales to 333 whales. Reuters

Japan will resume its controversial whale hunts in the Southern Ocean next year, but has pledged to scale back the number of whales it would take from 1,035 to 333, according to a new plan released by the Japanese government on Tuesday. The country will also cease hunting fin and humpback whales and only kill minke whales. However, there will likely be little change in the number of minke whales being hunted annually, given that the new figure is close to the number of whales already being killed for so-called scientific research, conservationists said.

Japan’s government in 2005 set its annual whale quota at 1,035, but the country has fallen short of that number every year since. Last year, Japanese whalers hunted 252 minke whales in the Antarctic, according to the International Whaling Commission. In 2012, just 103 minke whales were killed in the region, an 88 percent drop from 2005. Critics of Japan’s whaling program have been quick to point out that most of the whales’ meat ends up being sold as food in shops and restaurants.

The new target would still allow Japan to hunt 32 percent more whales than it did last year. That means “in practice, it’s not changing anything,” Leigh Henry, a senior policy advisor on species conservation for the World Wildlife Fund, told International Business Times. Henry said the conservation group “would oppose [the plan] no matter what the number.”

The decision to slash Japan’s annual whale quota came after a U.N. high court ruled in March that the country’s whaling operations violated an international moratorium on commercial whaling, despite the Japanese government’s insistence that their whaling practices have a scientific purpose. Japan has long taken advantage of a loophole in international whaling law that allows countries to hunt whales for scientific research, even though most of the data collected has never been published in reputable journals. Conservationists have maintained that there are other, non-lethal methods of gathering scientific data on whale populations, like tagging and DNA profiling.

The new target is part of Tokyo’s revised scientific research plan following international pressure to change its whaling practices. The government has submitted the new program to the International Whaling Commission for approval, something that would, in a sense, legitimize Japan’s operations in the Southern Ocean. A team of scientists and experts from the commission will review Japan’s program and issue a formal position sometime next summer, a spokesperson for the commission said.

If the plan is approved, Japan would have the commission’s backing to kill 333 minke whales every year between 2015 and 2027. Antarctica’s Minke whales are not endangered and number in the hundreds of thousands, said Ari Friedlaender, a researcher with the Marine Mammal Institute at Oregon State University. Killing 333 minke whales a year would “likely not have an impact” on the overall population, he said.

Some conservationists, however, argue that the number is irrelevant and that any whaling – commercially or other – is unnecessary. “Whales face numerous other threats from around the world,” including pollution and climate change, Claire Christian, director of the secretariat of the Antarctic and Southern Ocean Coalition, told IBTimes. “Now is not the time to introduce any additional stressors.”

Why Japan continues to defy international moratoriums and hunt whales in the Southern Ocean is unclear. Research has shown that consumers’ taste for whale meat has waned in recent years, leading to stockpiles of frozen whale meat doubling over the last decade. The meat was once a cheap protein alternative but is now the same price as beef, according to a report from the Associated Press.

A leading theory, according to Henry, is that because the island nation is dependent in many ways on marine resources, the government fears that bending to outsider demands to end its deeply-rooted whaling operations could lead to further limitations on its vital fishing industries, a core part of its national identity. “I think they view it as a slippery slope,” she said. “If their access to whales is taken away, then the international community will move on to the next thing, then they’ll be told they can’t hunt Bluefin tuna or shark.”