(CNN) -- Whalers from a Japanese coastal town have celebrated the start of this year's hunting season by slicing up a whale in front of a crowd of school children.
In the town of Wada, 62 miles (100 kilometers) south of Tokyo in Chiba prefecture, dozens of 10-year-old students watched Thursday as workers carved up a 30-foot Baird's beaked whale during an educational field trip, before being served a meal of fried whale meat.
Whaling remains a way of life for fishermen in Wada, and they are eager to pass on the trade to the next generation. Children are taught about the history of whaling, the biology of the animals, and how to cook the meat.
Whalers say they've been catching and eating whales in the area for centuries. This year's hunting season, which began on June 20, is the first since an international court ordered Japan to end its controversial research whaling expedition in the Antarctic, after failing to find evidence the program had legitimate scientific value.
The city of Minamiboso, of which Wada is a part, has one of a handful of ports that is exempt from the ban under a small-scale coastal whaling program.
So far this year, Gaibo Whaling Company has hunted six whales in the city's coastal waters and plans to catch another 24 before the season ends in August.
Despite the Antarctic ban and growing pressure from the international community, Japan has continued its northwest Pacific scientific whaling mission. It is also eager to revise its Antarctic program to allow the hunt to continue while satisfying the demands of the U.N.'s International Court of Justice.
In Japan's parliament last month, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said he would like the country to resume commercial whaling "in order to obtain scientific information indispensable to the management of the whale resources."
But environmentalists say Japan's whaling research program is a thinly veiled attempt to circumvent a ban on the commercial whale meat trade.
Patrick Ramage from the International Fund for Animal Welfare believes it's time Japan moved from killing whales to conserving them.
"Respect for cultural differences is fundamental, but friends of Japan and fans of Japanese culture around the world are watching this with sadness," Ramage told CNN's Will Ripley.
"Japanese school children should be meeting whales through whale watching, not eating whale meat," he said.
Japan's supporters of eating whale meat say that it is a tradition that dates back hundreds of years, and accuses western critics of cultural imperialism. But consumption rates across the country have fallen in recent years, leading to large stockpiles of whale meat.
Last month, Japan's Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Ministry released a photo of the agriculture minister Yoshimasa Hayashi eating a bowl of whale meat to encourage other Japanese citizen to do the same, and visitors to the ministry were given free samples of the delicacy.
In a survey of Japanese people released in April, only 4% of respondents said they ate whale meat occasionally, compared to 37% who said they didn't eat it at all.
CNN's Will Ripley contributed to this report.