Kushiro, Japan CNN  — 

For the whale hunters, the inaugural expedition was a big success.

Hours after heading out to sea, their ships returned with the carcasses of two freshly harpooned minke whales, their huge, gaping maws draped off the sterns of the vessels.

“The catch was much bigger than expected,” said Yoshifumi Kai, chairman of the Japan Small-Type Whaling Association. “I’m very happy.”

At a ceremony before the fleet went out on July 1, Kai had given an emotional speech to an assembly of whalers, law-makers and the mayor of the northern Japanese port city of Kushiro.

“I’m so moved my heart is shaking,” he said.

This was an important day. Japan was lifting a 30-year ban on commercial whaling in its waters.

A whale caught in Japan's first hunt after its ban on commercial hunting in domestic waters was lifted on July 1, 2019.

In 1986, the International Whaling Commission (IWC) announced a worldwide moratorium on commercial whaling. In late 2018, however, Japan decided to withdraw from the IWC – a move welcomed by its whale industry but condemned by environmental campaigners who believed it would threaten endangered species of whale.

But with Japan’s appetite for whale meat in decline, why is the country so committed to killing whales?

Whale experts

The septuagenarian Maeda brothers have decades of experience in pursuing whales.

These days, they run whale spotting trips on the frigid waters of the Sea of Okhotsk. But long ago, they used to hunt them.

Mitsuhiko Maeda, 73, and his younger brother Saburo, 71, worked in an eight-man team, harpooning and killing around 40 whales a year.

“Finding whales is a part of my life,” the elder Maeda said, as he steered his boat towards a minke whale to give the half a dozen Japanese tourists on board a closer look.

Mitsuhiko Maeda, 73, used to hunt whales. Now he leads whale-watching tours.

When asked about the resumption of commercial whaling, none of the tourists objected.

“Of course, it should restart,” the elder Maeda said. “Japan has a culinary culture of whales.”

Maeda has no plans to revive his former career, however. He enjoys showing tourists fin whales, the second largest of the world’s whale species.

“I will continue to lead cruises, and the whale hunters can catch the whales,” he said. “I want both to co-exist.”

A tourist on the Maeda brothers' boat admires the  whales.