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Japanese whalers off to hunt humpbacks

THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
Nov 16/07

    SHIMONOSEKI, Japan - A defiant Japan embarked on its largest whaling expedition in decades Sunday, targeting protected humpbacks for the first time since the 1960s despite international opposition. An anti-whaling protest boat awaited the fleet offshore.
   Bid farewell in a festive ceremony in the southern port of Shimonoseki, four ships headed for the waters off Antarctica, resuming a hunt that was cut short by a deadly fire last February that crippled the fleet's mother ship.
   The whalers plan to kill up to 50 humpbacks in what is believed to be the first large-scale hunt for the once nearly extinct species since a 1963 moratorium in the Southern Pacific put the giant marine mammals under international protection.
   The mission also aims to kill as many as 935 minke whales and up to 50 fin whales in what Japan's Fisheries Agency says is its largest ever scientific whale hunt. The expedition lasts through April.
   Japan says it needs to kill the animals in order to conduct research on their reproductive and feeding patterns.
   While scientific whale hunts are allowed by the International Whaling Commission, or IWC, critics say Japan is simply using science as a cover for commercial whaling.
   The anti-whaling group Greenpeace said its protest ship, Esperanza, was moored just outside Japan's territorial waters and would chase the fleet to the southern ocean. There was no immediate word of an offshore confrontation.
   An IWC moratorium on commercial whaling took effect in 1986, but Japan - where coastal villages have hunted whales for hundreds of year - has killed almost 10,500 mostly minke and Brydes whales under research permits since then.
   Tokyo has argued unsuccessfully for years for the IWC to overturn the moratorium.
   The Japanese hunt, which puts meat from the whales on the market despite waning appetite for the dish, is growing rapidly despite an increasingly vocal antiwhaling movement
   This winter season's target of up to 1,035 whales is more than double the number the country hunted a decade ago.

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