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Massive Whaling Hunt Begins, Despite International Ban

Minke whales off the coast of Japan are swimming for their lives.

A fleet of four whaling ships launched from a northeastern Japanese port on Friday, seeking some 51 minke whales who live in coastal waters, according to The Japan Times. The hunt is part of the country's whaling program for the purpose of "scientific research," which allows hunters to kill whales within 50 miles of the port of Ayukawa in Miyagi Prefecture.

The so-called "research" is actually a thinly veiled attempt to pave the way for future whaling expeditions. By examining the stomach contents of the whales they capture, the Association for Community-Based Whaling, the organization conducting the hunt, says they will study the minke whales' impact on the ecosystem and on other species - though much of the meat ends up in the commercial market.

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Commercial whaling was banned in 1986 by the International Whaling Commission, but Japan, Iceland and Norway continue to hunt whales. Japan uses a loophole in the moratorium that allows for "research hunting" while Iceland and Norway formally object to the ban, and continue to hunt whales.

The current hunt comes just over a year after the highest United Nations court, the International Court of Justice, ruled that another scientific hunt conducted by Japan in the Antarctic was "unscientific" and ordered it to halt. Despite the ruling and widespread public backlash to whaling, Japan vowed to continue its lethal "research whaling," developing a new scaled-down plan with lower quotas to appease critics.

After the court ruling, Japan's quota was set at 333 minke whales - down from 900 whales in previous years. Conservationists called the lower quotas a "farcical" and temporary public relations move, meant to simply delay another quota increase.

While minke whales are not listed as endangered, some populations are considered "data deficient" by the IUCN Red List, meaning that it's not exactly clear how their numbers could be impacted by whaling. But in order to protect all the ocean's iconic giants, any amount whaling is too much whaling.