Japanese media had earlier reported that the target catch for this season's hunt would be cut back in an effort to avoid protests, but fisheries officials say no such cut is planned.

'Research'

Japan calls its hunting expeditions a scientific programme, and says they provide crucial data on the mammals.

Environmentalists argue that this is a cover for continued commercial whaling, which was banned by the International Whaling Commission in 1986.

They say there is nothing that can be learned about whales solely by killing them.

The whaling fleet, whose ships carry the motto "Research" painted on their sides, sell the whale meat from the hunt for consumption back in Japan.

The Australian anti-whaling group Sea Shepherd has said it plans to deploy its own ship to Antarctica to disrupt the Japanese whaling fleet.

Last year, a Japanese whaling ship and a ship owned by Sea Shepherd collided twice near a pod of whales.

The group's activists also dumped a foul-smelling acid on another whaling boat, slightly injuring two crew members.