A fleet of six Japanese whalers left port yesterday for their annual hunt in the Antarctic, where they are hoping to kill 860 whales in a controversial research program.
The ships set sail from the southern port of Shimonoseki.
Officials say the fleet has a target of killing 850 minke whales and 10 fin whales before returning to Japan in April. Minke, a relatively small species, are fairly plentiful in the Antarctic, but the larger fin whales are more rare.
Japan began conducting the annual "research" hunts after the International Whaling Commission (IWC) imposed a global ban on commercial whaling in 1986.
Japanese officials claim the program -- and the use of lethal harpoons -- is needed to gauge whale populations, and study their breeding and feeding habits. Meat from the catch is sold commercially, and the proceeds are used to fund future research.
The program is allowed by the IWC, which uses its data, but many environmental groups claim it is a pretext for keeping whale on the market. They note that whale meat, canned or frozen, can be found in most large supermarkets but is no longer an important part of the Japanese diet.
Hideki Moronuki, of the whaling division at Japan's Fisheries Agency, said whaling has become "politicized" and that criticism of Japan's research program is off base.
"The idea 20 years ago was to temporarily halt commercial whaling because there was a lack of data," he said. "Our goal is the sustainable management of whale resources, based on scientific data."
Greenpeace Japan has protested, demanding that the Fisheries Agency stop the annual hunts.