The fleet, which left the port of Shimonoseki under heavy guard, is headed to Antartica for the whaling season and aims to slaughter up to 1,000 whales.

Around 2.28 billion yen (£19 million) of earthquake recovery fund money, put aside in a govenment budget for tsunami victims, is being used to fund the whaling fleet according to environmentalist groups. Much of this is said to be necessary to protect the boats from attack by activist groups like Greenpeace and Sea Shepherd.

Japan is permitted to engage in whale hunting for the purposes of scientific research by the IWC (International Whaling Commission), although environmentalists have claiming that this is a false claim, since much of the whale meat ends up being sold and eaten in Japanese supermarkets and restaurants.

Last year, the Sea Shepherd group, a whale protection charity formed to be a more extreme version of Greenpeace, was successful in hindering much of the whaler’s activities, putting a halt to the hunt season after only 1/5 of the whale allocation had been reached. Sea Sheperd activists engaged whaling boats in a harrassment battle, positioning themselves in the way of the harpoon hunting. Another unusual tactic involved throwing bottles of rancid butter and smoke bombs onto the decks of whaling ships.

The Japanese government last year labelled Sea Shepherd a “terrorist organisation” and issued warrents for the arrest of some British and American activists.

A collective letter signed by a group of 18 non-government organisations in Japan, including the Consumers Union and the Environmental Lawyers Federation read: “We demand the government not waste any more taxpayers’ money on the whaling program, but instead spend this money on projects that actually help the people, communities and region affected by the tragic March 11 earthquake, tsunami and nuclear crisis.

“It is clear that the Japanese government’s stated goal of resuming commercial whaling in the Southern Ocean is unachievable. The whaling program cannot survive without taxpayer handouts.”

The Fisheries Agency in Japan said that the funding was justified since some traditional coastal-based whaling communities were affected by the tsunami.

Main photographs: Whale slaughter, The Sea Shepherd vessel Steve Irwin leaves port & minke whale sushi (Getty images)