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Japan returns to business of whale hunting. But whales may be better off.

Yearly catch limits are lower than the number the country at times killed for research.

A ship carrying a captured minke whale arrives at a port in Kushiro, Japan, on Monday. Japan restarted its commercial whale-hunting business after a 31-year ban. The country did hunt whales during that time for research and sold the meat of those whales. (Kazuhiro Nogi/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images)

Japanese whalers returned to port Monday with their first catch after resuming commercial whaling for the first time in 31 years.

A fleet of five boats left the northern Japanese port of Kushiro earlier Monday and brought back two minke whales. A crane lifted them and slowly placed them on the back of a truck to be taken to a portside factory for processing. Workers in blue plastic overalls poured sake, a traditional Japanese rice wine, from paper cups onto the first whale to express thanks and celebrate the first catch.

It was the first commercial hunt since 1988, when Japan switched to what it called research whaling after commercial whaling was banned by the International Whaling Commission (IWC). Japan gave six months’ notice that it was withdrawing from the IWC, a move that took effect Sunday.

The Fisheries Agency said that the hunts will stay within the waters around Japan and that the catch limit for the rest of this year will be 227 whales. That’s fewer than the 637 that Japan hunted in the Antarctic and the northwestern Pacific in its research program in recent years.

While many conservation groups condemn the resumption of commercial whaling, others see it as a face-saving way to let the government get rid of its expensive whaling program.

Whale meat was an affordable source of protein during the lean times after World War II, but whale was quickly replaced by other meats.

Under its research whaling, Japan caught as many as 1,200 whales a year. The practice was criticized because the meat was sold on the market. The country drastically cut back its catch in recent years after international protests increased and whale meat consumption slumped.

Today, about 4,000 to 5,000 tons are supplied in Japan each year, or 1-1.4 ounces of whale meat per person, Fisheries Agency officials say.

The research whaling program lost money for years — $15 million in the last year alone.

Japan will stick to a very strict catch limits and will continue conducting research, said Hideki Moronuki, a Fisheries Agency official and the chief negotiator at the IWC. He said Japan’s commercial whaling will never harm whale stocks.

Altogether, they are to catch 52 minkes, 150 Bryde’s and 25 sei whales through December 31.

The resumption of traditional whaling may end up saving money for the government money and saving the lives of many whales, experts say.

“What we are seeing is the beginning of the end of Japanese whaling,” said Patrick Ramage, director of the International Fund for Animal Welfare. “It is a win-win solution that results in a better situation for whales, a better situation for Japan, a better situation for international marine conservation efforts.”

Whaling is losing support in other whaling nations including Norway and Iceland, where whalers have cut back on catches in recent years amid criticism that commercial hunts are bad for their national image and tourism.

Japanese are also beginning to see ecotourism as a better option for whales than hunting them for food.

“People in coastal communities all do better when whales are seen and not hurt,” Ramage said.

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