TOKYO, Nov 18 (Reuters) - A Japanese whaling fleet left on Sunday for an expedition activists say will for the first time target humpbacks, a perennial favourite among whale-watchers.
The Nisshin Maru, the 8,000-tonne flagship of Japan's whaling fleet, left Shimonoseki port for the Antarctic along with catcher boats around midday, environmental group Greenpeace said, adding that others in the fleet were expected to follow soon.
Japanese fisheries officials were unavailable to confirm the fleet's departure on Sunday.
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.
Greenpeace said its Esperanza campaign ship was in waters off Japan, waiting to intersect the fleet in the coming days to demand that the expedition return home.
Failing that, the Esperanza also plans to follow the fleet into southern waters to protest the hunt.
"It's clearly commercial whaling in disguise and the aim for the Japanese government is to restart commercial whaling," Karli Thomas, the Esperanza's expedition leader, told Reuters by telephone from aboard the ship.
"There's a moratorium against commercial whaling, and that needs to be enforced."
Whale meat, which under rules set by the International Whaling Commission must be sold for consumption, ends up in Japanese supermarkets and restaurants, but appetite for what is now a delicacy is fading.
HUMPBACKS, FIN WHALES
The fleet aims to catch more than 1,000 whales before returning to port early next year, Greenpeace has 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.
The departure of the fleet was postponed to Sunday from the originally scheduled date of Nov. 15 to avoid causing friction during a meeting between Japanese Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda and U.S. President George W. Bush that took place on Friday, Greenpeace said.
Japan argues that its whaling programme helps the understanding of whale stocks and species, and fisheries officials in the past protested the activities of environmental organisations.
Japan abandoned its last Antarctic whale-hunting season earlier this year after fire crippled the Nisshin Maru, killing one crew member. That expedition netted a haul of around 500 whales. (Reporting by Naomi Tajitsu; Editing by John Chalmers)