Whaling ships set sail on Monday from Japan as the country began its first commercial hunts in decades, after withdrawing from the International Whaling Commission, which in 1986 enacted a moratorium on the practice. Five vessels from whaling communities left port in northern Japan’s Kushiro with their horns blaring and grey tarps thrown over their harpoons. Japan’s decision to withdraw from the IWC was slammed by activists and anti-whaling countries, but the resumption of commercial hunts has been welcomed by Japanese whaling communities, and the departure from Kushiro was celebrated with a send-off ceremony. How Japan’s return to commercial whaling could actually kill the industry “My heart is overflowing with happiness, and I’m deeply moved,” said Yoshifumi Kai, head of the Japan Small-Type Whaling Association, addressing a crowd of several dozen politicians, local officials and whalers. “This is a small industry, but I am proud of hunting whales. People have hunted whales for more than 400 years in my hometown.” Celebratory cups of the Japanese liquor sake were handed out during the ceremony, before the boats left the dock. Whaling vessels are also leaving Monday morning from other ports including in Shimonoseki in western Japan. The country’s Fisheries Agency said on Monday it had set a cap for a total catch of 227 whales through the season until late December – 52 minke, 150 Bryde’s and 25 sei whales. “I’m a bit nervous but happy that we can start whaling,” said 23-year-old Hideki Abe, a whaler from the Miyagi region in northern Japan, before leaving. “I don’t think young people know how to cook and eat whale meat any more. I want more people try to taste it at least once.” Whaling has long proved a rare diplomatic flashpoint for Japan, which says the practice is part of the country’s tradition and should not be subject to international interference. As an IWC member, Japan was banned from commercial hunts of large whales, though it could catch small varieties in waters near its coastline. But it also exploited a loophole in the body’s rules to carry out highly controversial hunts of whales in protected Antarctic waters under the banner of “scientific research”. Activists said the hunts had no scientific value, and Japan made no secret of the fact that meat from whales caught on those hunts ended up sold for consumption. With its withdrawal from the IWC, Tokyo will carry out whale hunting off Japan, but will end the most controversial hunts in the Antarctic. “The resumption of commercial whaling has been an ardent wish for whalers across the country,” Shigeto Hase, the head of Japan’s fisheries agency, said at the departure ceremony in Kushiro. He said the resumption of commercial whaling would ensure “the culture and way of life will be passed on to the next generation”. Whale meat was a key source of protein in the immediate post-World War II years in Japan, when the country was desperately poor. But consumption has declined significantly in recent decades – with much of the population saying they rarely or never eat whale meat – and activists have pressed Japan to ditch the practice. Some believe that Japan’s return to commercial whale hunting will effectively sound the death knell for the industry. “Japan is quitting high-seas whaling … that is a huge step towards the end of killing whales for their meat and other products,” said Patrick Ramage, director of marine conservation at the International Fund for Animal Welfare. He said commercial whaling in Japanese waters was unlikely to have much of a future given dwindling subsidies and the shrinking market for whale meat. “What we are seeing is the beginning of the end of Japanese whaling,” Ramage said.