Japan whale hunt resumes in Antarctic after 1-year hiatus
Japan plans to kill 333 whales in this year's 'scientific whaling' programme
Japan's whaling fleet set out for the Antarctic on Tuesday to resume a decades-old whale hunt, defying global outrage, after a year's hiatus due to an international court ruling.
Japan aims to take more than 300 whales in its "scientific whaling" programme before the hunt ends next year.
"Many of our citizens are celebrating your trip out to sea," said Tomoaki Nakao, the mayor of the western city of Shimonoseki that is home to much of Japan's whaling fleet and part of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's election district.
The International Court of Justice (ICJ) ruled last year that Japan's whaling in the Southern Ocean should stop and an International Whaling Commission (IWC) panel said in April that Japan had yet to demonstrate a need for "lethal sampling."
But Tokyo, which had vowed from the start to resume its "scientific whaling" programme from the 2015/2016 season, retooled its hunt plan to cut the number of minke whales it intends to take to 333, down by two-thirds from previous hunts.
An official from the Fisheries Agency in Tokyo told the crew that Japan had notified members of the IWC of its new plans.
"Thanks to the hard work of the scientists and all those involved, the final research report has been released and we presented it to the IWC member nations the other day," Satoshi Kunii, director general of the Fisheries Agency, told the fleet's crew at a ceremony prior to their departure.
Anti-whaling activist threat
He also warned, however, of a threat from anti-whaling activists.
"According to these (reports), they are strongly against the resumption of our research whaling programme and have said things that could be interpreted as vowing to obstruct our operations if they meet up with us at sea. But the Ministry of Fisheries is coordinating with the appropriate ministries to ensure the safety (of this mission) and will continue to deal with this appropriately," he said.
Shortly before noon the ships sailed away under a clear blue sky, with family members and officials waving from shore. The hunt is expected to last until March.
Japan, which has long maintained that most whale species are not endangered and that eating whale is part of its food culture, began what it calls "scientific whaling" in 1987, a year after an international whaling moratorium took effect.
It says its whaling surveys are needed for information on how whales live, including what they eat, as well as population numbers. The meat ends up on store shelves, although most Japanese no longer eat it.
Officials, including Abe, have long said their ultimate goal is the resumption of commercial whaling — a pledge Abe repeated in a message read at the pre-departure ceremony.