Tsunami-hit Japanese whalers set sail for hunt

TOKYO, JAPAN - Japanese whalers on Tuesday launched their annual coastal hunt with five crew from the tsunami-devastated whaling town of Ayukawa joining their first voyage since the March 11 disaster.

Two whaling vessels left Kushiro on the east coast of the northern island of Hokkaido after their departure was delayed by one day due to bad weather, said Hiroko Furukawa, a fisheries agency official.

The crew from Ayukawa Whaling, the only whaling company in Ayukawa, were on board to catch up to 60 minke whales off Kushiro until June, the official said.

"Local whaling officials are preparing to accept people from Ayukawa, who were victimised by the disaster," Furukawa said, adding that another 23 people from Ayukawa had come to Kushiro to work in processing whale meat.

The massive tsunami that last month slammed into Japan's northeast coast destroyed Ayukawa Whaling's storage facility and carried its fleet of three whaling ships hundreds of metres inland, where they remain.

Ayukawa Whaling chairman Minoru Ito has said he would lay off all 28 employees and suspend whaling operations in the town until further notice.

The tsunami came shortly after Japan recalled its Antarctic whaling fleet a month early, citing the threat posed by the militant environmentalist outfit Sea Shepherd.

The group, which says its tactics are non-violent but aggressive, has hurled paint and stink bombs at whaling ships, snared their propellers with rope and moved its own boats between the harpoon ships and their prey.

Japan has continued to hunt whales under a loophole that allows killing of the sea mammals for what it calls "scientific research", although the meat is later sold openly in shops and restaurants.

Japan also argues that whaling is an integral part of the island nation's culture.