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Japan whaling fleet returns home amid U.S. dispute
TOKYO, Japan (Reuters) -- Japan's whaling fleet returned home on Thursday after catching nearly 90 whales, the source of an ongoing dispute with Washington, which has protested against the hunt and banned Japanese vessels from fishing in U.S. waters.
Five ships of the six-vessel fleet arrived back in Japan on Thursday morning after catching 43 Bryde's and five sperm whales, as well as 40 minke whales in the northwestern Pacific Ocean. One ship returned earlier this month.
"Although we couldn't hunt whales in bad weather, we did catch as many as 20 whales on some days," said one young member of the 109 crew of the Nishinmaru after it docked in Tokyo.
While the catch was below the original plan to bring home 50 Bryde's, 10 sperm and 100 minke whales, it was enough to anger Washington, which protested against Tokyo's decision to hunt Bryde's and sperm whales, both species protected under U.S. law.
Japanese whaling previously had been limited to minke whales, but Tokyo decided in July to include the two species in this year's programme, which lasted from August 1 to September 16.
International debate still rages over whether the numbers have increased sufficiently to allow catches.
Japan says its whaling program is permitted by International Whaling Commission (IWC) rules and stresses that it is intended for scientific research.
Fishermen began lifting wooden boxes from the refrigerated hull of the Nishinmaru, some bound for laboratories. Others, labelled "North Pacific specially selected red whale meat," would be sold and eventually reach restaurant menus.
Profits from the meat sales could be used to cover the cost of research, the Fisheries Agency said.
"It would be a waste not to do so and completely in line with the ICRW's (International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling) treaty which requires that by-products of the research be processed," the Tokyo-based non-government Institute of Cetacean Research said.
Tokyo has reacted angrily to a U.S. decision to ban its vessels from fishing in U.S. waters and hinted that it would complain to the Geneva-based World Trade Organization if Washington imposed economic sanctions.
"We enjoy the benefits of free trade," said Masayuki Komatsu, of the Fisheries Agency policy planning department. "I hope and strongly urge the U.S. to calm down and talk to Japan for a possible, practical solution."
U.S. President Bill Clinton last week announced the fishing ban and threatened sanctions if Tokyo did not curtail its expanded hunt for whales.
Tokyo has said it will continue research whaling next year, including Bryde's and sperm whales as part of a two-year program aimed at collecting data in preparation for a full-fledged research whaling program due to start in 2002.
Washington has not formally indicated what Japanese exports would be targeted by possible sanctions, but some officials have said they would include seafood.
Copyright 2000 Reuters. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.
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