A Japanese research whaling fleet left port Wednesday on a mission to catch 260 whales by the end of August in an effort to research the
creature's feeding patterns, the Japan Broadcasting Corporation (NHK) reported.
Three harpoon and two research ships with more than 200 crew members left from different ports in Japan and are being sent by the Institute of Cetacean Research, which conducts the research whaling activities under the authority of Japan's Fisheries Agency.
Japan's whaling has drawn sharp criticism from environmental advocacy groups, who claim it involves the cruel slaughter of whales so that meat can be sold in markets and restaurants. Japan has hunted up to 1,000 whales in the Antarctic annually, according to the International Whaling Commission.
Officials in Japan say their hunts are permitted under rules prohibit commercial whaling but allow whaling for scientific reasons - including
lethal force for research purposes.
But Australia has taken the controversial issue a step further - asking an international court to weigh in on Japan's whale-hunting practices.
"We want to see an end to whales being killed in the name of science," Peter Garrett, Australia's environmental protection minister, told reporters.
Their bid may be boosted by the statements from two former Japanese whalers who told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation's "Foreign
Correspondent" show that there is systemic embezzling aboard the whaling vessels.
The men told ABC that whaling ship crew members often take hundreds of pounds of meat from the whales and often sell it or eat it themselves.
"First, when the ship returns to Japan and arrives in the port, a transport truck is waiting. The crewmen will then pack the whale meat they stole into a cardboard box. One person carried off 500 to 600 kilograms," one man told ABC.
If the claims are true, it would undermine Japan's assertions that its main purpose for whaling is research - not the reselling of meat.
An official with the Institute of Cetacean Research said they recognize the anger some people have over whaling practices but insist the work they do is for research. They know like in similar years they will face threats of protests or problems at sea - especially since the film "The Cove" which explores the issue has gone mainstream.
Australia's lawsuit, and the Japanese trip, comes as an anti-whaling activist faces charges including assault and trespassing in a Japanese court. Prosecutors allege that Peter Bethune, an environmental activist from New Zealand, threw butyric acid at a whaling ship, jumped aboard and attempted to make a citizen's arrest of the captain. Bethune has pleaded guilty to all charges except assault. He testified Monday that he did not intend to hurt anyone. A verdict is expected later this month.
Still, despite protests and threats, the research center says they will continue on with their trip as normal.
"You can't tell what antiwhaling groups would do," one official told Japan's Kyodo News Agency according to a Japan Times report. "We will be more careful than ever."