On Tuesday, Japan's whaling fleet will set out on a three-month-long hunt for minke whales. The Japanese government argues that this hunt — which will only kill 333 whales, about a third of the average yearly haul before the country's year-long whaling pause — is being done in the name of scientific research. But the U.N.'s International Court of Justice has already deemed the "scientific" program to be anything but.

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Most of the whales won't end up in laboratories, but on dinner plates. Japanese officials claim that the specimens will be used to study the health and migration patterns of minke whales, but some argue that these research vessels have never been anything but a way around commercial whaling bans imposed in 1986. Today, Japan is the only country that practices whaling in international waters.

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In its review of the new plan, a panel set up by the International Whaling Commission agreed, and asked that Japan go back to the drawing board on its whaling plans. A group of 44 scientists from 18 different countries signed a statement arguing against the scientific validity of the killings. But instead of waiting another year to resubmit, Japan will go ahead with the controversial plan — a move that is angering many conservationists.


A minke whale on the deck of a whaling ship. (Institute of Cetacean Research/AFP/Getty Images)

"We do not accept in any way, shape or form the concept of killing whales for so-called 'scientific research'," Australian environment minister Greg Hunt said in a statement. It was Australia that brought the ICJ case against Japan, which led to the country's year-long whaling hiatus and this new, tamer whaling plan.

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Hunt and his colleagues are far from satisfied. The Associated Press reports that Australian officials may even send a Customs and Border Protection Service patrol boat to monitor the hunts for illegal behavior.

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"There is no need to kill whales in the name of research," Hunt said in a statement. "Non-lethal research techniques are the most effective and efficient method of studying all cetaceans."

Japanese officials don't hide the fact that the meat from these research animals is butchered and sold commercially. But they argue that minke whales are abundant enough to be hunted sustainably, in any case. Minke whales are indeed the most common baleen whales in the ocean, and they're not endangered. But some conservationists point to a steady decline in the animal's numbers over the course of the past few decades as a warning against even this "sustainable" whaling.


The remains of a poached whale floating in the Southern Ocean, where Japanese vessels will resume hunting on Tuesday. (Andrew J Correll/Reuters)

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