The Japanese fisheries agency has warned its officials against accepting whale meat as gifts from whalers, just weeks after Japan's whaling expedition left for the Antarctic Ocean for its annual hunts.
The agency reprimanded five officials for accepting whale meat from a fisheries company that operates the government-funded whaling programs from 1999 to 2008, agency official Koji Hamada said Friday.
The whale meat gifts totaled some 25 kilograms, worth more than 270,000 yen at market value, he said.
The officials were suspected of violating public servants' ethical standards. They acknowledged accepting the gifts after returning from each whaling expedition they accompanied separately as a supervisor. The punishment was announced Wednesday.
Earlier this month, Japanese whalers left for the Antarctic Ocean for their annual hunts, and the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society boats have also left New Zealand in pursuit.
Clashes between the whalers and opponents have escalated in recent years, and a Sea Shepherd boat sunk after a collision with a whaling ship last January. Each hunting season runs from about December through February.
The agency's investigation followed media allegations last year that whalers and officials were siphoning off meat from the tax-funded whaling programs, Hamada said. Two Greenpeace activists in 2008 stole a package containing whale meat, claiming it was proof of wrongdoing.
A Japanese court in September convicted them of trespassing and theft, ordering suspended prison terms while acknowledging murky gift-giving practices among whaling officials.
Hamada said whaling operators Kyodo Senpaku Kaisha and the Institute of Cetacean Research have been asked to stop sending whale meat gifts to officials. He denied the punishment had anything to do with the ruling.
"The point is, whether it is whale meat or not, we should not accept any gifts that invite suspicion from the public," he said.
Japan hunts whales under the research exemption to a 1986 worldwide ban on commercial hunts. Critics say there is no reason to kill the animals, and that the research program amounts to commercial whaling in disguise because surplus meat from the hunt is sold domestically.© Copyright 2010 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.