Tokyo: Japanese whaling ships left port Thursday for Antarctic waters for their annual hunt of the ocean giants, Greenpeace said, setting the stage for high-seas confrontations with anti-whaling activists.
The factory ship Nisshin Maru and the smaller Yushin Maru 2 and 3 set sail from western Innoshima port while the Shonan Maru left eastern Shiogama harbour for their planned five-month voyage, said the environmental activist group.
Japan kills hundreds of whales a year in the Southern Ocean Whale Sanctuary by using a loophole in a 1986 international moratorium on commercial whaling that allows the sea mammals to be hunted for lethal "research."
Anti-whaling nations led by Australia and New Zealand and environmental groups including Greenpeace have long attacked Japan for its annual whaling expeditions, criticizing them as cruel and unnecessary.
Japan, which says whaling is part of its culture, makes no secret of the fact that whale meat ends up on its dinner tables.
Japan`s fisheries agency declined to confirm the ships` departure, citing security reasons, and urged anti-whaling activists to refrain from violence.
"We don`t say you shouldn`t campaign against whaling, but there is a strict line between peaceful campaigns and violence," said Shigeki Takaya, a fisheries agency official in charge of whaling.
Militant activist group the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society has harassed the whalers in recent years, moving their own ships and inflatable boats between the harpoon ships and the sea mammals.
Last year their ship the "Steve Irwin" collided with a whaling ship. Activists were also accused of hurling stink bombs and rancid butter at the whalers, who allegedly deployed ear-piercing sonic weapons against them.
During their five-month hunt last season, the six Japanese ships caught 679 minke whales and one fin whale -- well below the fleet`s planned haul of between 765 and 935 whales, Japan`s fisheries agency said.
The captain of the "Steve Irwin," Canadian Paul Watson, has vowed to "be their ongoing nightmare every year until they stop their horrific and unlawful slaughter of the great whales in the Southern Ocean Whale Sanctuary."
This year the activists say they also plan to deploy a super-fast, space-age powerboat, the "Ady Gil", formerly known as "Earthrace," which jetted round the world in just under 61 days last year, a new record.
The tri-hulled, kevlar-and-carbon vessel, which can manage speeds up to 50 knots (57 miles/93 kilometres per hour), will chase the harpoon boats during their annual hunt in the icy seas south of Australia.
"The Ady Gil will be our interceptor. It will be able to latch on to a harpoon boat and prevent it killing any whales," said Watson. "It should be able to run rings around them."
Watson said the boat, bankrolled to the tune of one million dollars by Hollywood businessman Ady Gil, will accompany the "Steve Irwin" during its three-month campaign from early December.
Norway and Iceland are the only other nations that hunt whales in open defiance of a 1986 IWC moratorium on commercial whaling.
Japan agreed in 2007 to suspend plans to expand its hunt to include humpback whales, which are popular with Australian whale-watchers.
A new Japanese centre-left government which took power mid-September has said it has no plans to change Japan`s position on whaling.
Greenpeace has voiced hope that moves to cut government waste will slash the budget of Japan`s Overseas Fisheries Cooperation Fund, which in turn finances the whaling body, the Institute for Cetacean Research.
The environmental group has lodged a submission recommending that the whaling programme be cut, labelling it corruption-ridden and a waste of 795 million yen (8.8 million dollars) in government subsidies this year.
"Japanese taxpayers? money is being squandered on life-support for a whaling programme that produces virtually nothing of value," said Jun Hoshikawa, executive director of Greenpeace Japan.
"With well over 9,000 minke whales killed in 22 years and no useful data produced, Japan`s so-called ?research? in the Antarctic is an international embarrassment."