Japan’s main whaling ship has arrived back in port after an Antarctic hunt hit by setbacks including a fatal fire.
Despite being forced to end the hunting season early, the crew still killed 508 whales out of a target of 860.
The annual hunt always makes headlines, as Japan insists it is done for research, while campaigners say that is just a pretext to procure whale meat.
This year’s hunt was more controversial than usual, due to a high seas showdown with environmental campaigners.
The whaling fleet left for the Antarctic in December, and planned to hunt 850 minke whales and 10 fin whales until mid-March.
It was involved in several clashes with protest group Sea Shepherd, leading Japanese officials to accuse the activists of behaving like pirates.
Then the 8,000-tonne flagship, the Nisshin Maru, was crippled by an unrelated fire, and one crew member was killed in the blaze.
Environmentalists raised fears that chemicals from the damaged ship could spill into the Southern Ocean, close to a large penguin colony.
Such concerns proved unfounded, but the stricken ship was forced to make its way back to Japan without its quota of whales.
Now it has reached port, plans for the rest of the year – including whether the ship can return to service for next season’s hunt – are being assessed.
“Everything depends on the results of our inspections of the ship, but the fact that it returned all the way to Japan on its own suggests there aren’t major machinery problems,” a fisheries agency official told reporters on Friday.
Japan is strongly opposed to the international ban on commercial whaling.
It hunts whales every year under what it describes as a scientific research programme, but after research has taken place the meat is sold.