Marine environmental group Sea Shepherd - known for vigilante tactics at sea that have included ramming whaling ships - has spoken out against the "utter horror" of Japan's return this week to commercial whaling. But the controversial decision, a New Zealand activist with the group says, shows the "death throes of a dying industry".
Japan has resumed commercial whaling for the first time in more than three decades following Tokyo's decision in December to withdraw from the International Whaling Commission, also known as the IWC.
While Japan has promised to stay within its exclusive economic zone, restricting whaling to within 200 miles from its own coast, the move has caused widespread international concern about the practice and where it's leading.
Sea Shepherd New Zealand Managing Director Michael Lawry said Japan's decision is a retreat of sorts. For years, the nation has been killing whales under the guise of "research" - a claim environmental groups and many nations have found dubious.
Returning the hunt "back into their own waters" is "a containment of the actual horror", he said on TVNZ1's Breakfast this morning. "It's face-saving."
Mr Lawry said the difference between killing whales and the slaughter of cows is "the utter horror, the cruelty".
"Sometimes, we forget that. It takes, our Sea Shepherd crews in the Southern Ocean have seen, the minke [whales] 45 minutes to die – 45 minutes. The average would be 10 to 20," he said. "Animal welfare codes around the world don't allow that. We can't spend 30 minutes killing a cow, for example.
"[It's] very, very cruel, and there's no way to kill a whale, dare I say it, humanely or quickly in the ocean. There have been studies about it. You just can't do it."
He said whales are still being killed with harpoons, which "takes a long time".
"It's a big animal," he explained. "You cannot do it quickly, and that's the utter horror of it all."
Mr Lawry said he would reject whaling for commercial purposes even if their numbers were more robust, noting there are "lots of reasons not to kill whales".
"Ecologically-wise, we now know only recently how important they are for the world’s oceans," he said. "A world's healthy ocean is teeming with whales. Their excrement then feeds the phytoplankton, so it's a big part of the ecological system. And so taking them out has some unintended consequences like taking sharks out, you know?
"You can't remove that much, dare I say it, biomass, without some unintended consequences."
He said whale meat isn't selling in Japan.
"And now they're trying to do the marketing again, like maybe put it in school lunches," he said. "You know you’re getting desperate when you start to offer putting it in school lunches, you know? It's a dying industry and young people just don't want to eat it at all."
Mr Lawry said the best way to stop Japan's commercial whaling is "still international pressure". Sea Shepherd is "asking the people of Japan to really question their government, and they are starting to question it", he added.
"We've got MPs now saying, 'What are we doing this for? We've got this terrible thing internationally, spending $30-50 million a year subsidizing this terrible industry - no one wants it'. And we're starting to get academics saying, 'Actually, we’re disregarding international law. You can leave the IWC and say we're going to resume commercial whaling, but it's still illegal'.
"Japan is supposed to be a good citizen, but they're breaking those international treaties."