TOKYO • Japan has killed 122 pregnant minke whales during a highly controversial annual whaling expedition that the government defends as scientific research but conservationists call "gruesome and unnecessary".
The four-month expedition in the Antarctic ended in March after the fleet killed 333 minke whales, according to a report submitted by the Japanese authorities to the International Whaling Commission (IWC) in April.
Of those, 122 were pregnant, according to the Japanese report, with dozens more immature whales among those killed.
Humane Society International, a conservationist group, called the figures "a shocking statistic and sad indictment on the cruelty of Japan's whale hunt".
"It is further demonstration, if needed, of the truly gruesome and unnecessary nature of whaling operations, especially when non-lethal surveys have been shown to be sufficient for scientific needs," said the group's senior programme manager, Ms Alexia Wellbelove.
Japan is a signatory to the IWC, which has maintained a moratorium on hunting whales since 1986.
But Tokyo exploits a loophole allowing whales to be killed for "scientific research" and claims it is trying to prove the population is large enough to sustain a return to commercial hunting.
It makes no secret of the fact that meat from the expeditions ends up on dinner tables.
Japan's Fisheries Agency defended the hunt, saying it was not targeting pregnant whales.
"We catch whales totally at random," said Mr Yuki Morita, an official in charge of whaling at the agency.
"We'd like to stress here that the high ratio of pregnant females is noteworthy... This shows there are many mature females, suggesting we can expect growth in resources stock," he told AFP.
Japan has hunted whales for centuries, and their meat was a key source of protein in the immediate post-World War II years when the country was desperately poor.
However, consumption of whale meat has declined significantly in recent decades, with much of the population saying they rarely or never eat it.