The UK has issued a New Year plea for Japan to stop using a legal loophole to ignore an international ban on hunting and killing whales.
Richard Benyon, the UK fisheries minister, spoke as the Japanese whaling fleet set off for Antarctica on its annual hunt.
The fleet hopes to catch and kill up to 935 minke whales and up to 50 fin whales by the end of March, with the excuse that each of them is for scientific research.
“Japan’s slaughter of whales, supposedly in the name of science is cruel and scientifically unnecessary. We urge Japan to stop this needless killing,” said Mr Benyon.
“It undermines international efforts to conserve and protect whales and goes against the spirit of the International Whaling Commission’s moratorium on commercial whaling.
“There is absolutely no justification for continued whaling and we will continue to oppose whaling at every possible opportunity.”
Commercial hunting was responsible for dramatic declines in whale numbers and was outlawed by the International Whaling Commission in 1986, but Japan awarded itself a quota and continues to hunt.
To get around the international moratorium on whaling, Japan uses a loophole that enables it to claim the quota as being for the purposes of scientific research.
Critics, including the UK government, point out that the number of whales Japan kills in the name of science far exceed those that were killed for research before the moratorium.
Since 1986 Japan has caught more than 20,000 whales whereas from 1954 to 1986 just 840 whales were killed for scientific research.
Japan continues to demand it should be allowed to catch whales – it has made repeated attempts to overturn the IWC’s – yet struggles to sell all the meat.
The UK’s Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs observed that three-quarters of the 1,200 tonnes of meat landed last year remained unsold “despite repeated attempts to auction it”.
Junichi Sato, executive director of Greenpeace Japan, said the whaling fleet’s mother ship, Nisshin Maru, has sailed from Innoshima and is now heading into the Southern Ocean. It will join three vessels that have sailed from Shimonoseki.