Japanese ships returned to port Friday with the first three of 60 whales they plan to catch off the northern coast in a seasonal hunt that Japan calls a research program, but others criticize as commercial whaling.
The hunt is approved by the International Whaling Commission, which permits Japanese whalers to catch up to 60 minke whales off the coast of Kushiro city on Japan's northernmost main island of Hokkaido, said Fisheries Agency spokesman Ryoichi Nakamura.
The fisheries agencies says the hunt, which ends Oct. 31, is aimed at studying the whales' feeding patterns and their effect on fish stocks, the AP informs.
The agency is to report its findings to the Britain-based International Whaling Commission, or IWC.
The IWC banned commercial whaling in 1986 to protect the endangered marine mammals, but approved limited hunts for research purposes a year later.
Environmental groups and anti-whaling nations, including Australia and Britain, say Japan's research whaling program is a commercial whaling venture in disguise.
Most of the whale meat from Japan's hunts are sold to restaurants to help fund the research program.
In addition to the annual hunt off Kushiro, Japan conducts a separate IWC-approved 60-minke whale hunt off the coast of Japan's prefecture of Miyagi, off its central main island of Honshu, during the first half of each year.
Japan unsuccessfully pushed to overturn the 1986 commercial whaling ban during the IWC's annual meeting in June in South Korea, where Japanese officials said they plan to more than double their catch in annual research hunts.
Along with the 120 it's allowed to catch off Hokkaido and Honshu, Japan currently catches 440 minke whales in the Antarctic Ocean and 210 more in coastal waters in the northwestern Pacific.