Japan said on Tuesday said it killed 177 whales off its northeast coast, in an annual hunt that has been repeatedly condemned by animal rights activists and several governments, AFP reported.

Three ships that left port in June returned with 43 minke whales and 134 sei whales, the country’s fisheries agency said.

Although Japan is a signatory to the International Whaling Commission’s moratorium on hunting, it exploits a loophole that allows whales to be killed for scientific research. The studies are “necessary to estimate the precise number of (sustainable) catches as we look to restart commercial whaling”, AFP quoted agency official Kohei Ito as saying.

In March, another Japanese fleet of five ships returned after killing 333 minke whales.

The moratorium and Japan’s stance

Under the International Whaling Commission, there has been a moratorium on hunting whales since 1986. Tokyo labels its hunts scientific, claiming that it is trying to prove the whale population is large enough to sustain a return to commercial hunting. Japanese consumer demand for whale meat, however, has declined over the years.

In 2014 the United Nations’ International Court of Justice ordered Tokyo to end its regular hunt in the Antarctic waters, saying the project did not meet conventional scientific standards. Japan cancelled its 2014-15 hunt, but resumed it the following year, saying the fresh plan is genuinely scientific.