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BBC's Science correspondent John Duce
"Environmental groups... say the hunt is just a thinly-veiled pretext to allow Japanese whalers into Antarctic waters"
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Friday, 17 November, 2000, 12:22 GMT
Japanese whalers sail despite row
Minke whale being harpooned
Japan has steadily increased its annual whale catch
A Japanese fleet has set sail for Antarctica on a whaling programme to catch hundreds of whales, in defiance of strong international criticism.

There's undoubtedly a large commercial element in [the trip]

WWF spokesperson
The expedition - the second in this year - comes a day after US President Bill Clinton urged the Japanese to stop their expanded whaling programme, threatening sanctions if they did not comply.

Japanese officials said 400 minke whales would be caught by next April for "scientific research".

Minke whaling ship
Japan has hunted over 500 large whales this year
Critics argue that "research trips" are a cover, as they do not breach the international moratorium on commercial whaling.

"Unfortunately, it's not technically illegal," Cassandra Phillips, the Worldwide Fund for Nature's whale co-ordinator, told BBC News Online.

"We think it's commercial whaling in disguise."

Ceremony for crew

The crews of the five whaling vessels received a rousing send-off from about 700 relatives, government officials and local residents as they left the port of Shimonoseki, south-western Japan.

Market with whale meat
Much of the whale meat is sold in shops and restaurants, say critics
Against a backdrop of fireworks, streamers and balloons released into the sky, a top fisheries official gave encouragement to the crews.

"I would like you to pursue your duties and not worry about the actions that anti-whaling groups may take to distract you from your work," Shoji Kawamoto, deputy director of Japan's Fisheries Agency, said.

"The scientific data which is gained through these hunts is very important."

Meat to be sold

Officials said the research, to aid management of whale populations, would look at the numbers of whales born and dying annually, as well as their age and where they live.

Whale meat restaurant in Tokyo
Japan has specialist whale meat restaurants
Critics say much of the whale meat lands up in shops and restaurants, where it is sold at a high price.

"There's undoubtedly a large commercial element in it," Ms Phillips said.

However, she said the main motive for the trips was to keep the whaling industry alive.

Whale meat was an important source of protein in Japan after World War Two, but with dwindling supplies, it is now an expensive delicacy.

Clinton's appeal

On Thursday, Mr Clinton appealed to Japanese Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori at an Asia-Pacific economic summit to cut down on the number of whales Japan hunts.

Japan has steadily been increasing its annual catch of whales, from 273 whales caught in 1988 to a planned total of 600 this year.

The whalers have said they will focus on the less-controversial minke whales, and try not to catch Bryde's or sperm whales, as they did earlier this year.

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See also:

14 Sep 00 | Americas
Japan condemns US anti-whaling move
03 Jul 00 | Sci/Tech
Minke whale numbers 'declining'
01 Aug 00 | Asia-Pacific
Uproar over Japan whaling trip
14 Sep 00 | Americas
Q&A: Japan-US whaling dispute
13 Sep 00 | Americas
US steps up threats to Japan
06 Jul 00 | Sci/Tech
Whaling ban stays - for now
19 Jun 00 | Asia-Pacific
Japan campaigns for whaling
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