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The Minister of Conservation Sandra Lee today roundly criticised Japan's decision to send a whaling fleet to Antarctica to hunt minke whales.

"It is deplorable that Japan plans to continue with its slaughter of hundreds of minke whales in a whale sanctuary," Ms Lee said. "I deeply regret this decision and once again call on Japan to stop this despicable move. "

A fleet of five vessels is due to leave from Shimonoseki port in western Japan within the next day, and plans to catch up to 440 minke whales during a six-month period in the Southern Ocean whale sanctuary.

"Japan's assertions that this whaling is necessary for scientific research purposes are unfounded," Ms Lee said.

"The International Whaling Commission and its scientific committee agreed in 1997 that the only scientific research required for the management of minke whales in the Southern Hemisphere can be carried out by non-lethal means," she said.

"It is also known that the money raised from the commercial sale of minke whale meat is the single most important contributor to the running costs of the Cetacean Research Institute in Tokyo, which is carrying out the whaling operation.

"The Japanese decision is doubly tragic in that some of the whales that will be killed in their Antarctic feeding grounds will have spent time in Australian and New Zealand waters.

Ms Lee said Japan was the only country to object to the establishment of the Southern Ocean whale sanctuary in 1994 and is the only country that has undermined the IWC's authority by killing whales in the sanctuary.

"Minke whales are not cockroaches of the sea as one senior Japan Fisheries Agency official has asserted," Ms Lee said. "At the last International Whaling Commission meeting in July there was no agreement as to how many minke whales are in the Southern Ocean but there are strong indications that their numbers may be in decline.

"We do not know how much of this decline may be attributed to so-called scientific whaling and how much may be due to other factors, such as global climate change.

"Whatever the cause, more unnecessary killing will not be condoned," Ms Lee said.

"The IWC has repeatedly called on Japan to abandon its lethal scientific whaling project which has killed over 5000 minke whales in the past 12 years. This does nothing but harden New Zealand's already strong resolve to continue to challenge and confront Japan over its actions.

"The next International Whaling Commission meeting, to be held next year will be a tough one, as it is being hosted in Shimonoseki in Japan, the home base of the 'research whaling' fleet. But New Zealand will be there to continue the struggle to protect our oceans," Ms Lee said.