TOKYO (AP) -- Japan resumed commercial whaling Monday after 31 years, meeting a long-cherished goal of traditionalists that's seen as a largely lost cause due to slowing demand for the meat and changing views on conservation.
Whaling boats embarked on their first commercial hunts since 1988, when Japan switched to so-called research whaling, but will stay within the country's exclusive economic waters. Japan's had given six-month's notice that it was withdrawing from the International Whaling Commission, a move that went into effect Sunday.
The Fisheries Agency said the catch quota through the end of this year was set at 227 whales, fewer than the 333 Japan hunted in the Antarctic in recent years. The announcement of the quota for this season's catch, originally planned for release in late June, was withheld until Monday in an apparent move to avoid criticism during this past weekend's Group of 20 summit in Osaka.
As the boats left port, whalers, their families and local officials in two major whaling towns, Shimonoseki in southwestern Japan and Kushiro in the north, celebrated the fresh start, hoping for a safe return and a good catch. Shimonoseki is Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's electoral constituency.
"We hope commercial whaling will be on track as soon as possible, contribute to local prosperity and carry on Japan's rich whale culture to the next generation," Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Yasutoshi Nishimura told reporters in Tokyo.
While the resumption of commercial whaling is condemned by many conservation groups, others see it as a face-saving way to let the government's embattled and expensive whaling program gradually succumb to changing times and tastes.
Despite the massive attention and tax money and political support from ruling party lawmakers, whaling in Japan involved only a few hundred people and accounted for less than 0.1 percent of total meat consumption in fiscal 2017, according to the latest government data on food sufficiency.
Whale meat was an affordable source of protein during the lean times after World War II, with consumption peaking at 223,000 tons in 1962. But whale was quickly replaced by other meats. Whale meat supply was down to 6,000 tons in 1986, the year before the commercial whaling moratorium imposed by the IWC banned hunting several whale species.
Under the research hunts, which were criticized as a cover for commercial hunts as the meat was sold on the market, Japan at its peak caught as many as 1,200 whales. It drastically cut back on its catch in recent years after international protests escalated and whale meat consumption slumped at home.
Today, about 4,000-5,000 tons are supplied to Japan annually, or 30-40 grams of whale meat consumed per person a year, Fisheries Agency officials say.
The research whaling program lost money for years — 1.6 billion yen ($15 million) in the last year alone.
Japan will stick to a very strict catch quota with respect to the IWC findings, and will continue conducting research, said Hideki Moronuki, a Fisheries Agency official and a chief negotiator at the IWC. He said Japan's commercial whaling will never harm its stock.
The commercial whaling will be carried out by two groups. The mother boat Nisshin-maru and two support boats that used to go to the Antarctic will travel as far as the 200 nautical mile exclusive economic zone to catch minke, Bryde's and sei whales. Five other smaller ships will stay closer to the coast but also hunt minkes, in addition to 168 Baird's beaked and two other kinds of small whales they used to catch outside of IWC jurisdictions. Altogether, they will catch 52 minkes, 150 Bryde's and 25 sei whales through Dec. 31.
Whales caught in coastal waters are expected to be brought back for fresh local consumption at any of six local whaling hubs that are mainly in northern Japan but include Taiji, the home constituency of ruling Liberal Democratic Party heavyweight Toshihiro Nikai. The town is also known for dolphin hunts shown in the documentary film "The Cove."
Whale meat caught further off the coast will be frozen and distributed for wider consumption.
Moronuki says the fate of commercial whaling depends on whether whale meat is widely accepted by consumers since it won't be getting as many subsidies as it used to get.
The government, however, plans to provide as much as 5 billion yen ($46 million) for projects to help stabilize commercial whaling, including development of rich whale hunting ground, research and development in the first few years, officials said.
Moronuki said he hoped whale meat would be reasonably priced so that it will gain popularity in the long-term instead of becoming an expensive delicacy for a limited clientele. The government used to sell portions of whale meat caught in the scientific program for school lunch programs at discounted prices, he said.
"The future of commercial whaling depends on how popular whale meat can be," he said. "Whale meat is a traditional food in Japan and I would like many people to try and develop taste for it, especially younger people."
A 2017 survey by the Japan Whaling Association showed about 64 percent of respondents in ages ranging from teens to 50s said they have eaten whale meat but most of them said they haven't eaten once for more than five years.
Ultimately, the resumption of the traditional whaling may end up saving both huge government subsidies and 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 and is therefore to be welcomed."
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.
Iceland caught only 17 whales, while Norway hunted 432 for the 2017-2018 season, way below their catch quota of 378 and 1,278 respectively, according to the IWC.
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.