Japanese Researchers Plan to Kill 860 Whales in Annual Hunt

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Japan's research whaling fleet is planning to kill 850 minke and 10 fin whales on its annual hunt in the Antarctic, the Fisheries Agency announced Tuesday.

The six-ship fleet was to leave from the southern port of Shimonoseki on Wednesday to begin this year's hunt, the agency said.

It said the fleet has a target of 850 minke whales, a relatively small and plentiful species, along with 10 of the fin species, which is larger and more rare. It will return to Japan next April.

Japan, the world's largest consumer of seafood, strongly opposes to the global ban on commercial whaling imposed by the International Whaling Commission 20 years ago. Although the primary objective of its fleet is researching the populations, feeding and breeding habits of whales, the meat from the catch is distributed commercially, with proceeds cycled back to pay the costs of the program.

Many environmental groups claim the research program is merely an excuse to keep whale meat on the Japanese market, a charge the Fisheries Agency denies. Data from Japan's research are used by the IWC's scientific committee to gauge whale stocks.

While the government-backed fleet continues to set sail each year, the whaling industry has all but vanished in Japan. Once a common part of the Japanese diet, whale is now an expensive delicacy, though it is easy to find cans of whale meat at most large supermarkets.

Even so, the Japanese government plans to catch 1,070 minke whales in 2006, as well as a total of 170 Bryde's, sei, sperm and fin whales.

This year, Japan has already caught 35 whales off the coast of the northern island of Hokkaido in a 42-day expedition. That catch was well below the 60 allowed under the coastal program, which like the Antarctic hunts is authorized by the IWC.

The small catch was blamed on bad weather.

Japan and other pro-whaling nations, claiming whale stocks are large enough to sustain limited kills of certain species such as the minke, have long been pushing for the IWC to revoke the 1986 ban on commercial hunts. At an IWC meeting in June, those nations passed a symbolic resolution to support ending the moratorium — but officially ending the ban would require a 75 percent majority among commission members.

Japan has refrained from overtly violating the IWC ban. But there is increasing pressure from the pro-whaling lobby, which includes many senior members of the ruling party, for it to revolt.

That pressure has been heightened by moves in Iceland, which last month resumed commercial whaling, issuing licenses to kill nine fin whales and 30 of the more numerous minke whales.

Iceland stopped commercial whaling in 1989, but shipped 60,000 tons of frozen whale products to Japan between 1970 to 1990. Officials said they were hoping to reopen exports of whale to Japan.

Norwegian hunters, meanwhile, have killed 546 minke whales this year. Norway resumed commercial hunts of minke whales in 1993 despite the international moratorium, and raised its quota in 2006 to 1,052, the highest in two decades.

"We feel that is very regrettable," said Junichi Sato, a spokesman for Greenpeace Japan. "Our polls suggest most Japanese don't support whaling on the high seas, and we strongly believe it should be stopped."