In defiance of world opinion, five Japanese whaling ships departed on Friday to kill an estimated 410 minke whales in what is being called "an expedition to Antarctic waters," an official said.
The Japanese fleet set sail from the southern Japanese port of Shimonoseki with a crew of 200 aboard the five ships. The flotilla includes the 7,638-ton Nisshinmaru mother ship, Fisheries Agency spokesman Shuji Sato said.
Sato said the purpose of the expedition is research, and the data to be collected will be reported to the International Whaling Commission for use in whale population studies.
The expedition is expected to last until April 2004 and is the 17th expeditiion to the Antarctic since the program began in 1987.
The International Whaling Commission banned commercial whaling in 1986, but approved restricted harvesting for Japan’s research program a year later.
Anti-whaling critics are outraged, including the United States, Britain and Australia, saying the program is nothing more than commercial whaling in disguise. Most of the whale meat ends up in Japan’s finer restaurants.
Japan is one of the world’s leading consumers of whale meat, considered a delicacy by many Japanese. In what appears to be a direct conflict of interest, the government sells the meat from the research catches to the local fish markets, and uses the proceeds to pay for the USD $37 million a year research program.