Japan whaling ships to set sail for Antarctic on 1 December

Antarctic minke whale, at sea Image copyright Science Photo Library
Image caption Supporters argue that whaling opponents are simply trying to impose their own cultural norms on Japan

Japan has said that its Antarctic whaling fleet will sail on 1 December, despite a UN legal decision that its "research ships" are actually commercial hunts.

A statement on Japan's Fisheries Agency website said whaling will run from late December until March next year.

Japan stopped whaling for one year, but announced last week it would resume.

For years the activity has pitted Japan against activists who call it inhumane and unsustainable.

In 2014, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) ruled that Japan's whaling programme did not qualify as scientific and should cease.

That season Japan sent whaling ships to the ocean, but, respecting the verdict, returned with no catch.

Smaller hunt, big opposition

The Japanese government says its new whaling programme takes into account that ICJ decision and is now much smaller.

The hunt will aim to capture 333 Antarctic minke whales, about one-third of what it used to kill.

It will also conduct non-lethal research, including sighting surveys and the collection of biopsy samples.

Four ships will be involved in the hunt, including the 8,000 tonne mother ship, the Nisshin Maru.

Image copyright Institure of Cetacean Research
Image caption Four captains and 160 crew will be involved in the hunt
Image copyright PA/Greenpeace
Image caption Japan is one of several nations to practice whaling, including Iceland, where this fin whale was caught

Japan's earlier announcement that it would resume whaling was met with dismay by environmental activists and governments opposed to the hunt.

"We do not accept in any way, shape or form the concept of killing whales for so-called 'scientific research'," said Australian Environment Minister Greg Hunt.

In 1982, the International Whaling Commission (IWC), the global body that regulates whaling, agreed a pause - often referred to as a moratorium - on commercial whaling from the 1985/1986 season.

Japan agreed to the moratorium, but has used the scientific whaling exemption to continue.

When is whaling legal?

Objection: A country formally objects to the International Whaling Commission moratorium, declaring itself exempt. Example: Norway

Scientific: A nation issues unilateral "scientific permits"; any IWC member can do this. Example: Japan

Indigenous (aka Aboriginal subsistence): IWC grants permits to indigenous groups for subsistence food. Example: Alaskan Inupiat

Guide to the great whales

Pointing to the IWC's remit to regulate rather than eliminate the whaling industry, Japan insists its practices are sustainable and that animal rights concerns are both sentimental and irrelevant.

Image copyright Institute of Cetacean Research
Image caption Anti-whaling activists have collided with ships involved in the hunts, in an attempt to stop them going ahead

Japan makes no secret of the fact that much of the whale meat produced as a result of what it insists is scientific research, ends up in supermarkets and restaurants.

While sale of by-products from genuine scientific whaling research is permitted, opponents say the scale of the sales dwarfs the amount of useful scientific evidence gathered, which they also insist can be found through non-lethal research.

Whale products are not frequently eaten by most people in Japan, some of whom share others' discomfort with the practice of whaling. But many other Japanese also feel it is an important cultural tradition and object to being pressured to give it up.

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