OSLO, Norway -- Norway will step up its whale hunts to the highest in more than two decades in 2006, harpooning 1,052 of the mammals despite an international moratorium, officials said on Wednesday.
The WWF environmental group blasted Oslo as whalers feted the decision, under which Norway would also expand hunts into international waters in the North Atlantic from its own zone for the first time since the 1980s.
"The quota for 2006 is a step on the road toward and ecosystem-based regulation of the whale hunt," Fisheries Minister Helga Pedersen said of the quota hike to 1,052 minke whales from 796 in 2005.
Norway has long said that whale stocks are growing uncontrollably while other fish stocks are dwindling.
Pedersen said the hunt would be a "conservative" catch from a stock Norway estimates at 107,000 minke whales in its hunting areas in the North Atlantic. Minkes are relatively plentiful compared, for instance, to endangered blue whales.
Japan, the other main whaling nation, has also raised its target catch for minke whales to 850 in the Antarctic this year, up from 440 despite opposition from anti-whaling nations. Minke whales are eaten as steaks.
"This is an unnecessary provocation by Norway to pass the psychological 1,000 animal barrier," said Rasmus Hansson, head of WWF Norway environmental group.
He said whalers had failed to catch a quota of about 750 animals in recent years and said that Norwegian demand for whale meat had sunk since the 1960s-70s when about 1,800 minke whales were caught annually.
The International Whaling Commission (IWC) agreed a global moratorium in 1986 to help prevent extinction. Norway resumed commercial whaling in 1993, breaking with the moratorium and the 2006 catch will be the biggest since the early 1980s.
"This is good. It means a steady course to develop whaling and will ensure that consumers can get environmentally friendly meat," said Rune Froevik of the High North Alliance which represents coastal communities.
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