"Japanese whaling ships left port Thursday for Antarctic waters for their annual hunt of the ocean giants, Greenpeace said, setting the stage for high-seas confrontations with anti-whaling activists.
The factory ship Nisshin Maru and the smaller Yushin Maru 2 and 3 set sail from western Innoshima port while the Shonan Maru left eastern Shiogama harbour for their planned five-month voyage, said the environmental activist group.
Japan kills hundreds of whales a year in the Southern Ocean Whale Sanctuary by using a loophole in a 1986 international moratorium on commercial whaling that allows the sea mammals to be hunted for lethal 'research.'
Anti-whaling nations led by Australia and New Zealand and environmental groups including Greenpeace have long attacked Japan for its annual whaling expeditions, criticizing them as cruel and unnecessary.
Japan, which says whaling is part of its culture, makes no secret of the fact that whale meat ends up on its dinner tables."