TOKYO, Nov 17 (Reuters) Japan's whaling fleet is set to depart tomorrow for an annual hunt that this year for the first time will take humpback whales -- a perennial favourite among whale-watchers -- sparking protests from activists.
Japan, which says whaling is a cherished cultural tradition, abandoned commercial whaling in accordance with an international moratorium in 1986, but began the next year to conduct what it calls scientific research whaling.
The meat, which under rules set by the International Whaling Commission must be sold for consumption, ends up in supermarkets and restaurants, but appetite for what is now a delicacy is fading.
The fleet is scheduled to set sail from Shimonoseki port in southwestern Japan for the Antarctic, where it aims to catch more than 1,000 whales before returning to port early next year, the environmental group Greenpeace said.
Among these are some 50 fin whales, which environmentalists say are endangered, and 50 humpbacks, which are favourites of whale-watchers for their distinctive silhouettes and acrobatic leaps from the water.
The remainder of the catch will consist of minke whales, which Japan says are now abundant enough to take.
''To serve the meat of endangered animals in restaurants after catching them in the name of so-called research is a problem,'' said Junichi Sato, a Greenpeace Japan spokesman, in a statement.
The departure of the fleet was postponed for tomorrow from the originally scheduled date of November 15 to avoid causing friction during a meeting between Japanese Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda and US President George W Bush that took place yesterday Greenpeace added.
Esperanza, a Greenpeace campaign ship, is currently positioned just outside Japanese waters and will follow the Japanese whaling fleet once it departs.
''The Japanese government's 'scientific' whaling programme is a sham,'' said Karli Thomas, expedition leader on the Esperanza, in a statement.
''Whaling has no place in Antarctica -- it's a place of peace and science, and this is not science,'' she added.
Japanese fisheries officials were not available for comment, but they have in the past protested the activities of environmentalist organisations such as Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, whose boats clashed with the Japanese fleet during its last Antarctic hunt earlier this year.
One of Sea Shepherd's boats was damaged in an incident with a Japanese vessel and Sea Shepherd activists poured acid on the decks of the fleet's flagship whaling vessel, the Nisshin Maru, to halt the crew's work, slightly injuring two.
Soon after, the 8,000-tonne Nisshin Maru caught fire and was stranded without power for more than a week. One crew member perished in the blaze and Japan was forced to cut short its hunt for the first time in 20 years.
REUTERS SYU HT1232