Japan on Monday resumed commercial whale hunts after more than three decades, AFP reported. This came after Tokyo’s decision to withdraw from the International Whaling Commission last December.

The commission has a moratorium in place on whaling since 1986, but Japan had used loopholes to continue the practice under the guise of research in the Antarctic Sea. The country has maintained for decades that the animal is not endangered and that eating whales is part of Japanese culture.

Five vessels from whaling communities left the port in northern Japan’s Kushiro on Monday morning, and caught their first whale by the afternoon. The vessels will be joined by more from the southern port of Shimonoseki. They are allowed to catch 227 whales until late December, according to the country’s fisheries agency.

“My heart is overflowing with happiness, and I’m deeply moved,” Yoshifumi Kai, head of the Japan Small-Type Whaling Association told AFP. “This is a small industry, but I am proud of hunting whales. People have hunted whales for more than 400 years in my home town.”

“I’m a bit nervous but happy that we can start whaling,” 23-year-old Hideki Abe, a whaler from the Miyagi region in northern Japan was quoted as saying. “I don’t think young people know how to cook and eat whale meat any more. I want more people try to taste it at least once.”

Meanwhile, Nicola Beynon of Humane Society International said it was a sad day for whale protection globally, Reuters reported.

Patrick Ramage, director of marine conservation at the International Fund for Animal Welfare, said “what we are seeing is the beginning of the end of Japanese whaling”. He said commercial whaling in Japanese waters was unlikely to have much of a future given the shrinking market demand for whale meat.

Japan’s decision to leave the commission was prompted by a vote in September last year, in which 41 member countries opposed its proposal to lift the moratorium on commercial whaling, while 27 members supported it.

“Japan’s basic policy, of promoting the sustainable use of aquatic living resources based on scientific evidence, has not changed,” Yoshihide Suga, Japan’s chief cabinet secretary, had said at the time. “Under that policy, we have decided to resume commercial whaling.”