Japan has officially resumed commercial whaling after a 31-year hiatus, with plans to catch 227 whales this year.
Japanese whaling ships were set to sail on Monday morning, a day after the country formally left the International Whaling Commission, the country’s Fisheries Agency said.
“We are very excited at the resumption of commercial whaling,” Yoshifumi Kai, head of the Japan Small Whaling Association, told AFP ahead of the departure.
“My heart is full of hope,” added Mr Kai, who belongs to a fisheries co-operative in an area known for both whale and dolphin hunting.
But celebrities, including Stephen Fry, Ricky Gervais and Dr Jane Goodall joined more than 100 conservation charities in signing open letters to all the leaders at last week’s G20 summit, backing pleas for Japan to face international anti-whaling pressure.
Their letters urged the leaders to call for an “immediate end to all commercial whaling”, according to Japan Today.
British broadcaster and naturalist Chris Packham was also among the opponents, describing Monday as “a dark day for life on Earth”.
A dark day for life on earth as Japan begins commercial whaling – not that they haven’t been slaughtering whales for years – but this is a very ugly backward step against the growing global belief that it’s time to love life : all life . https://t.co/IlucwDrwV6
— Chris Packham (@ChrisGPackham) June 29, 2019
Japan’s controversial withdrawal from the IWC – which bans whale hunting – comes after the organisation rejected Japan’s proposal in September to resume commercial whaling of species believed to be abundant.
Japan officially ended commercial whale-hunting in 1986 but has caught up to 1200 whales a year in so-called “research missions” in the years since.
It has long claimed the missions were designed to monitor stocks to establish sustainable quotas. But critics have said the research missions were just a cover so Japan could hunt whales for food – meat from the whales killed for research usually did end up for sale.
Japan Today reports that the new hunts, while small and far from internationally protected waters, have also sparked anger in countries where whaling is considered outdated and harmful.
But Japanese whaling communities have hailed the return of the hunts, and Tokyo defends it as a tradition that should not be subject to outside interference.
Japan’s fisheries ministry told the BBC it would start issuing permits for hunts on July 1.
“But the starting date is subject to decisions of the whalers, weather and other conditions,” it said.
Five vessels are expected to set sail in July.
The whaling “will be conducted within Japan’s territorial waters and exclusive economic zone”, Hideki Moronuki of the Japanese fishing ministry told the BBC.
However, Japan will end its whaling in the Antarctic, including research missions, where it has met with international condemnation. Protests in Antarctic waters have included clashes with protest boats.
In March, Japan’s whaling fleet returned from its last voyage after hunting 333 minke whales in the Southern Ocean for “scientific purposes”.
Some conservationists and experts say Japan’s whaling industry is already on its last legs. Consumption is shrinking and there is no sign of a market recovery.
“What we are seeing is the beginning of the end of Japanese whaling,” Patrick Ramage, director of marine conservation at the International Fund for Animal Welfare, told Japan Today.