Seoul, South Korea (CNN) -- South Korea is considering hunting whales in the waters off its shores for what it says are scientific purposes, drawing criticism from environmental groups and countries around the Pacific Rim.
Citing calls from fishermen for a resumption of limited whaling, the head of the South Korean delegation to the International Whaling Commission, Kang Joon-suk, said Wednesday that Seoul was working on a proposal to hunt minke whales migrating off the Korean Peninsula.
Korean fishermen complain the whales are disrupting their fishing activities and eating fish stocks, Kang said at the commission's annual meeting in Panama. Nonlethal measures are not enough to assess the whales' numbers and feeding habits, he said.
But environmental organizations were skeptical about the South Korean explanation.
"We believe this move is a thinly veiled attempt by Korea to conduct commercial whaling under the guise of scientific research, similar to hunts conducted by Japan in the Southern Ocean whale sanctuary," said Wendy Elliott, head of World Wildlife Fund's delegation to the whaling commission.
Japan hunts whales each year despite a worldwide moratorium in place since the 1980s, utilizing a loophole in the law that allows for killing the mammals for scientific research.
Environmental activists like the organization Sea Shepherd track the Japanese hunters, facing off with them in a high seas drama that has led to collisions of ships, the detaining of activists and the firing of smoke bombs.
South Korea intends to pursue a similar approach to Japan by submitting a proposal to the Scientific Committee of the International Whaling Commission.
Other countries in the region reacted to Seoul's plans with dismay.
"I am very disappointed by this announcement by South Korea," Prime Minister Julia Gillard of Australia said Thursday. "We are completely opposed to whaling; there's no excuse for scientific whaling."
Gillard said she had instructed the Australian ambassador to South Korea to take the matter up "at the highest levels of the Korean government."
New Zealand intends to take similar action over the situation, Foreign Minister Murray McCully said, suggesting that South Korea's plans could undermine the standing of the International Whaling Commission.
The announcement "will put further pressure on an organization that already has significant difficulty sustaining itself as a credible international institution," he said.
The United States also opposes Seoul's proposal, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said in a statement.
"We are extremely concerned about South Korea's push to kill whales in the name of research," said Russell Smith, deputy assistant secretary for international fisheries at the agency. "Legitimate research can be done without killing whales."
The minke whales that would be the target of South Korea's proposed hunt are considered endangered by the whaling commission's Scientific Committee, WWF said in a statement.
But Seoul is suggesting that the number of minke whales in the north Pacific has "recovered considerably."
In his statement to the whaling commission, South Korea's Kang said that his country's "whaling history dates back to prehistoric times, and whale meat is still part of a culinary tradition of some of Korea's local areas such as Ulsan."
Before the international moratorium came into effect in 1986, Koreans were catching about 1,000 minke whales each year in the waters around the peninsula, he said.
But his claim that the whales were now making life difficult for fishermen failed to impress environmental groups.
"Blaming whales for declining fish populations is like blaming woodpeckers for deforestation," Greenpeace said in a statement. "Whales do not cause declines in fishing stocks, over fishing and mismanagement by humans do."
CNN's K.J. Kwon contributed to this report.