Japan will go ahead with its whaling program in the Antarctic later this year under heightened security to fend off activists who have vowed to disrupt the annual hunt, the country's fisheries minister said Tuesday.
Japan's whale hunts have become increasingly tense in recent years because of clashes with the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society. The most recent expedition was cut short after several high-seas confrontations, and it was unclear whether the hunt would be held at all this year.
But fisheries minister Michihiko Kano said that measures would be taken to ensure the whalers' safety, and that the hunt would go ahead. It is expected to begin in December.
"We intend to carry out the research after enhancing measures to assure that it is not obstructed," he said.
Commercial whaling has been banned since 1986, but Japan conducts whale hunts in the Antarctic and the northwestern Pacific under an exception that allows limited kills for research purposes.
Japan's government claims the research is needed to provide data on whale populations so that the international ban on commercial whaling can be re-examined _ and, Japan hopes, lifted _ based on scientific studies.
Opponents say the program is a guise for keeping Japan's dwindling whaling industry alive. The Sea Shepherd group, which is already rallying to block the upcoming hunt, has been particularly dogged in its efforts to stop the kills.
Last year's season was marred by repeated incidents with Sea Shepherd vessels, one of which sank after colliding with a Japanese ship. The boat's captain, New Zealander Peter Bethune, was later arrested when he boarded a whaling ship from a Jet Ski, and brought back to Japan for trial.
He was convicted of assault, vandalism and three other charges and given a suspended prison term. Bethune has since returned to New Zealand.
Sea Shepherd recently announced that it is calling its effort to obstruct the December expedition "Operation Divine Wind" _ a reference to the "kamikaze" suicide missions carried out by the Japanese military in World War II.
Though vilified by anti-whaling organizations around the world, the government's strong pro-whaling position has the support of the Japanese public, according to an AP poll conducted in July and August.
Fifty-two percent favor it, 35 percent are neutral and 13 percent are opposed, the poll found.
Once a common item on school lunch menus, whale meat can be found in stores and restaurants in Japan. But, because of its relatively high price, it is generally regarded as a gourmet food by the public.