Ships set sail in Japan's first commercial whale hunt in more than 30 years

Ships set sail in Japan's first commercial whale hunt in more than 30 years
Ships set sail in Japan's first commercial whale hunt in more than 30 years

By Elaine Lies and Masashi Kato

KUSHIRO, Japan (Reuters) - Five small ships sailed out of harbor on Monday in Japan's first commercial whale hunt in more than three decades, a move that has aroused global condemnation and fears for the fate of whales.

Japan has long said few whale species are endangered, and news in December that it was leaving the International Whaling Commission (IWC) to resume hunting was the culmination of years of campaigns by industry supporters and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, whose constituency includes a city that has long whaled.

"If we had more whale available, we'd eat it more," said Sachiko Sakai, a 66-year-old taxi driver in Kushiro, a gritty port city on the northernmost main island of Hokkaido, where the whaling ships were waved out of harbor in a brief ceremony.

"It's part of Japan's food culture," said Sakai, adding that she ate a lot of whale as a child. "The world opposes killing whales, but you can say the same thing about many of the animals bred on land and killed for food."

The ships, which are set to be joined by vessels from the southern port of Shimonoseki, will spend much of the summer hunting for minke and Baird's beaked whales.

Crew in orange life vests took positions on the decks as the blue-hulled ships sailed out of Kushiro, some with red banners fluttering from their masts.

Japan began whaling for scientific research a year after a 1986 ban on commercial whaling, aiming to gather what it called crucial population data, but it abandoned commercial whaling in 1988.

Critics said the program was simply commercial whaling in disguise, after the meat of animals taken in scientific whaling ended up on store shelves and in restaurants.

This year's quota, including minkes, sei whales and Bryde's whales, was about 220, the Nikkei newspaper said.

Environmentalists said the launch was delayed until after a summit of leaders of G20 major economies that Japan hosted, but whaling proponents have denied this.

Environmentalists worldwide urged leaders at the summit in the western city of Osaka not to ignore what they called a cruel assault on whales.

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The quota set by Japan's Fisheries Agency is to be adjusted annually, people in the industry say. As whaling will be limited to the exclusive economic zone, Japan will no longer take about 330 Antarctic minke whales a year, as it has done recently.

Whaling is a tiny industry in Japan. Whale makes up about 0.1 percent of all meat eaten in a year, with about 300 people directly linked to whaling.

Japan's annual supplies of about 4,000 tonnes to 5,000 tonnes amount to 40 gm to 50 gm for each citizen, or about the weight of half an apple. Even whaling supporters say building demand will take time.

Patrick Ramage, head of the International Fund for Animal Welfare, called the move a face-saving solution that could eventually lead Japan to abandon whaling.

"It's a good decision for whales, it's a good decision for Japan, and it's a good decision for international marine conservation," he said.

(Reporting by Elaine Lies and Masashi Kato; Editing by Clarence Fernandez)

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