Britain is preparing to make an official protest over Japan's decision to hunt endangered humpback whales for the first time in over 40 years.
The Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) reaffirmed its opposition to humpback whaling after a Japanese whaling fleet was given a rousing send-off yesterday.
Laden with deadly 6ft harpoons, the fleet departed with its beer-swilling crews preparing to hunt endangered humpback whales, despite an international outcry.
Crowds of cheering onlookers waved from the quayside and a brass band played Popeye The Sailor Man, as four whaling ships, led by the 8,000 ton Nisshin Maru with a crew of 239, set sail for the Antarctic on their bloody mission.
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Catch: The fleet is targeting 50 endangered humpbacks whales still listed as 'vulnerable'
Anti-whaling campaigners fear the Japanese hunters will target a much-loved white humpback whale - the only one every recorded - which is seen almost every year as it swims on a migration route along Australia's east coast.
So familiar is the whale that it has been given the name Migaloo which means "white fella" in Aborigine.
Whale-watching cruisers regularly take tourists out to try to catch a glimpse of the magnificent creature and there is even a website devoted to sightings of Migaloo.
But now that the Australian summer has arrived, the whale is back down in Antarctic waters – directly in the path of the Japanese whaling ships.
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Japan: The whaling vessel Nisshin Maru gets a colourful send-off (above and below)
The festive ceremony at the southern Japanese port of Shimonoseki was reminiscent of war-time naval departures as crew members waved to the gathering crowd on shore.
The crews will be even happier in five months time should the quartet of ships return with their intended haul of more than 1,000 bloody carcasses spread across their decks.
Defying a 1963 moratorium in the Southern Pacific which put the giant marine mammals under international protection, the fleet is targeting 50 endangered humpbacks whales still listed as "vulnerable" by the World Conservative Union.
Humpbacks, which can grow to 50ft and weigh up to 50 tons, are celebrated by whale-watchers for their complex songs and acrobatic displays where they throw themselves out of the water.
Humpbacks feed, mate and give birth near shore, making them easy prey for whalers, who by some estimates depleted the global population to just 1,200 before the 1963 moratorium.
The southern moratorium was followed by a worldwide ban in 1966 while commercial whaling was banned in 1986.
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Toast: Crew members of Japanese whaling ships raise cans of beer before departure
The Japanese say the whaling is for scientific research and have included humpbacks on their killing agenda because they say their numbers have increased.
The Japanese expedition also plans to kill 50 fin whales, the world's second largest animal after blue whales, as well as 850 smaller minke whales.
Japan abandoned its last Antarctic whale-hunting season earlier this year after fire crippled the Nisshin Maru, killing one crew member. That expedition netted a haul of around 500 whales.
Team leader Hajima Ishikawa told a departure ceremony: "Although we are subjected to vicious blocking tactics by environmental groups, we have to continue this into the future."
A Defra spokeswoman said: "We do not believe that Japan's proposed lethal research that targets vulnerable humpback populations is necessary, and we have serious reservations as to its scientific value.
"We are committed to maintaining the moratorium on commercial whaling and will oppose all efforts by Japan to undermine this with so-called 'scientific' whaling.
"We will consider high-level diplomatic protest to the Japanese government following consultation with like-minded anti-whaling countries."
The independent Environmental Investigation Agency also said Japan's actions were "unnecessary and provocative".
Greenpeace said its ship Esperanza is waiting outside Japanese coastal waters and will track the whaling fleet to the Antarctic.
Australia may also deploy military aircraft to monitor the Japanese ships.
The opposition Labour Party, which is tipped to win Australia's general election on Saturday, has promised to adopt a more aggressive stance towards Japan's annual whale hunt.
Labour's foreign affairs spokesman, Robert McClelland, said that under a Labour government Australian military aircraft would range across Antarctica, collecting data on the activities of the Japanese fleet to mount a legal challenge.
Greenpeace expedition leader Karli Thomas said: "The threatened humpbacks targeted by the whalers are part of thriving whale-watching industries elsewhere. The whaling fleet must be recalled now.
"If it is not, we will take direct, non-violent action to stop the hunt."
Greenpeace also claimed the fleet's departure was postponed from November 15 to avoid causing friction during a meeting between Japanese Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda and U.S. President George W. Bush that took place on Friday.
A defiant Japan counters that Western nations are insensitive to its "cherished cultural tradition" and makes no secret that whale meat ends up on dinner plates.
Minoru Morimoto, head of the government-backed Institute of Cetacean Research, said last week: "Japan's research makes a valuable contribution to the management of Antarctic whale species to ensure that any future commercial whaling regime is robust and sustainable to provide a reliable food source for generations to come."
Outcry after Japan ends 44-year ban on humpback whale hunt | the Daily Mail
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