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Japanese whaling ships have returned from an expedition to the Antarctic Ocean with 333 whales, the Australian Associated Press reports, against United Nations international court orders.

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Japan has said that its whale harvest is for "scientific" purposes, but a United Nations International Court of Justice (ICJ) ruling in 2014 found that the hunt had no scientific merit, but rather was being used as a cover for commercial whaling. The court found that the special scientific permits issued to Japan are not used to study ecosystems.

The International Whaling Commission banned whaling for non-scientific purposes in 1986. Since then, Japanese expeditions have killed around 95% of the 14,410 whales that have been hunted under the guise of research.

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In the previous summer season, from December 2014 to February 2015, the Japanese government announced that it would not hunt any whales for the year, a short-lived halt that was reversed last December. For the past three months, four Japanese ships from the country's Institute of Cetacean Research were in Antarctic waters hunting whales. The precise number of whales killed this year, 333, is about a third of the number that Japan was previously capturing on a yearly basis.

The Australian government, which took Japan to the ICJ in 2014, has said it would consider sending customs vessels to monitor and potentially intervene in the hunt, the AAP reports, but environmental groups say the Japanese ships faced little scrutiny this year.