AFP – Japan said it will dispatch a whaling fleet to the Antarctic on Tuesday after a one-year suspension, defying international criticism and a UN legal ruling that the “research” expedition is a commercial hunt in disguise.

Tokyo has for years come under intense global pressure to stop hunts that opponents decry as inhumane, but the government defends them as an inherent part of Japanese culture.

Conservation group Sea Shepherd Australia said it would use its own ship to follow the mission, which Japan’s Fisheries Agency said in a statement Monday would aim to kill a total of 333 minke whales.

The group has clashed with Japanese whaling ships in the past.

“Any illegal activity we come across we’ll engage, our history speaks for itself,” said Sea Shepherd Australia director Jeff Hansen.

The United Nations’ top legal body judged last year that Japan’s so-called scientific whaling in the Southern Ocean was a disguise for commercial hunts.

Japan sent whaling ships to the Antarctic last season, though they returned with no catch.

Tokyo said it revised its annual hunt, with plans to kill fewer whales than previous years and take into consideration recommendations made by the International Whaling Commission (IWC), though they did not elaborate.

“The research ships will depart for new whale research in the Antarctic on Dec. 1, 2015,” the Fisheries Agency said in the statement, adding that the research period would run from late December to early March.

The fleet will include a mother ship and three other vessels with a total of 160 crew members taking part, it said.

Japanese media had earlier reported the government planned to resume the hunts — though details of the exact timing were unclear — which drew strong reaction.

“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 on Saturday.

“Non-lethal research techniques are the most effective and efficient method of studying all cetaceans.”

On Monday, a spokeswoman for Hunt said Canberra was “keeping its options open” regarding a potential response to the resumption.

A coalition of Japanese non-government organisations, including Greenpeace Japan, issued a joint statement urging the government to “uphold international rules.”

“The Japanese government should stop research whaling in the Antarctic and should start taking actions toward conservation of the ocean,” the Japanese language statement said.

Japan accuses opponents of being emotional about the mammals and disregarding what it says is evidence to support its position.

Tokyo also conducts hunts in the name of science in the Northwest Pacific and off the Japanese coast.

Japan has long said its Antarctic hunt was allowed under an exemption in a global whaling moratorium that allows for lethal research.

But it makes no secret of the fact that meat from the mammals — despite being killed ostensibly for research — is processed into food, and says the whale population in any case is big enough to allow sustainable whaling.

However, the highest UN court, the International Court of Justice, ruled in March 2014 that the annual Southern Ocean expedition was a commercial hunt masquerading as science to skirt the international moratorium.

Japan’s fisheries agency insisted on Monday the whaling research mission reflected previous recommendations from the IWC’s scientific committee and that it would cut annual minke catches by two-thirds to 333.

It did not say why it chose that number, though the committee has previously said Japan has failed to justify the need for even a reduced annual figure.

“We think all the necessary procedures are over,” a fisheries official said.

“As we seek to resume commercial whaling, it is crucial to get information as to whales’ migration, reproductive rates and the age pyramid of the population for setting catch quotas,” the official added.

Lethal whaling is necessary “to get this kind of essential information,” he said.

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