Three Japanese ships set sail early Tuesday morning for the first commercial whaling expedition in 32 years off the country's northeastern Sanriku Coast.

Japan resumed hunting whales for commercial purposes last July 1, a day after formally leaving the International Whaling Commission, and whaling took place last year in waters off the northernmost main island of Hokkaido and other regions. But there were no voyages in Sanriku waters, as minke whales had already left the area and reached the waters around Hokkaido.

The fleet left port in Ishinomaki, Miyagi Prefecture, to track minke whales in nearby waters that are on their annual migration north in search of food.

"We're finally here. We hope to deliver fresh and delicious whale to everyone," said Nobuyuki Ito, president of a local whaling company from the district of Ayukawa, which used to be one of the most prosperous whaling hubs in the country.

The company jointly runs two of the ships with other local firms, while the third ship is owned by a whaling company from Minamiboso in Chiba Prefecture near Tokyo.

The companies have developed their own sales channels and will mostly land their catches at the Miyagi port. Last year, the Japan Small-Type Whaling Association based in southwestern Fukuoka Prefecture was solely in charge of the sale of the whale meat and no catch was landed in Miyagi.

As an IWC member, Japan halted commercial whaling in 1988 but hunted whales for what it called research purposes, a practice criticized internationally as a cover for commercial whaling.

Tokyo says the resumed commercial whaling will only take place in nearby waters and within its exclusive economic zone.

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