Japan pushed Tuesday to lift a 24-year-old ban on commercial whaling, setting up a clash at talks in Florida with implacable foes opposed to its pursuit of the giant mammals.Tokyo's position against the International Whaling Commission (IWC) moratorium risked new tensions with environmental campaigners and Australia, which has slapped Japan with a legal ultimatum unless it stops whaling."To gain the right to resume commercial whaling, what and how much can we give?" Japanese fisheries minister Hirotaka Akamatsu told reporters ahead of the closed-door talks among lower-level IWC negotiators in Florida."We will continue our patient negotiations," he said, after last month hinting at a compromise that would see Japan scale back its troubled annual whale hunt in Antarctica if it can whale commercially in its own waters.At the weekend, militant anti-whalers heading back to Australia declared an end to this season's pursuit of Japanese harpoon ships in Antarctic waters after a series of dramatic clashes on the high seas.Paul Watson, captain of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society fleet, estimated that they had reduced the Japanese kill by up to half, costing the whalers between 70 and 80 million US dollars.He said Sea Shepherd's harassment techniques, which included the use of rancid butter-bombs, acoustic weapons, water cannon and a futuristic powerboat, had managed to block harpooning entirely for more than a month.In 1986, the IWC slapped a moratorium on commercial whaling, but Japan uses a loophole that allows lethal "scientific research" for its annual Antarctic hunts, while Norway and Iceland defy the ban entirely.The three nations have since killed more than 30,000 whales.The Florida talks come ahead of the annual IWC meeting in June, when nations will discuss a compromise proposal by the commission's chair to give the green light to whaling but with the goal of gradually reducing the total catch."In the end, I will go to the IWC meeting (in June) and voice Japan's position and make sure it will bear fruit," Akamatsu told reporters.Japan makes no secret of the fact that the meat of whales it kills is sold in restaurants and shops, and maintains that whaling is a centuries-old tradition for the island-nation.But Australia's government says it will haul Japan in front of the International Court of Justice this year unless it forswears whaling.Japan has called the ultimatum "extremely regrettable", and Akamatsu stood firm as negotiators from key nations were to meet through Friday in a resort town on Florida's Gulf coast.The compromise would bring the whaling of Japan, Norway and Iceland under IWC control, requiring that DNA samples be handed over for any "research" whaling, and aim to "significantly" reduce the catch over 10 years.Cristian Maquieira, chairman of the 88-nation IWC, said the rancorous status quo "should not be regarded as an option" despite the angry reaction of Australia and New Zealand to Japan's efforts to dilute the ban.While not addressing the Antarctic, the IWC compromise would set up a whale sanctuary in the South Atlantic, where key players such as South Africa and Brazil oppose whaling.Environmental groups have been scathing over the proposal, with Greenpeace arguing that it effectively undoes the landmark 1986 moratorium credited with restoring stocks of the ocean giants. "This would take us right back to the 20th century of commercial whaling," said Phil Kline, an oceans campaigner at Greenpeace USA. "And after a 10-year period of doing this, there is absolutely nothing beyond that, so it just opens up the floodgates again," Kline said.