Japan's latest whaling expedition has set out for the Antarctic, to a chorus of condemnation from environmental groups and anti-whaling nations.

Japan sent a six-ship whaling fleet to the Antarctic on what it calls a "scientific" expedition. The Japanese Fisheries Ministry said the fleet intends to catch around 850 minke whales and 10 fin whales, an endangered species.

Anti-whaling nations and environmental groups have long condemned Japan's whale hunting as cruel and unnecessary. Japan abandoned commercial whaling in 1986 in line with an international moratorium, but then began what it calls its scientific whale research program one-year later.

At a meeting of the International Whaling Commission in South Korea in June, Japan tried and failed to get approval to resume its commercial whaling program. Instead, the commission passed a non-binding resolution urging Japan to stop its research whaling as well. Japan then announced it would double the size of its program.

Pia Mancia, an activist with the environmental group Greenpeace in New Zealand, says it is not necessary to kill whales in order to study them. She says the Japanese are simply continuing commercial whaling under the guise of scientific research.

"We have monitored this hunt for years," said Pia Mancia. "Basically what happens is, they go down to the Southern Ocean, they set themselves a quota and they kill as many whales as they can in the Southern Ocean. They do a wee bit of research, but basically the majority or all the whale meat goes back to Japan and is put on the market for sale."

Greenpeace and other environmental groups have strongly condemned Japan's latest whaling expedition, and called for stronger actions against Japanese whalers. New Zealand's conservation minister and Australia's environment minister also called on Japan to stop the whaling program.

Darren Kindleysides, of the Sydney-based International Fund for Animal Welfare, says his organization has urged the Australian government to take legal action against Japan, as years of diplomatic efforts to halt the program seem to have failed.

"There are compelling arguments that Japan is in significant breach of international legal obligations under measures such as the international Law of the Sea," said Darren Kindleysides. "It will be possible for any government that is really opposed to the so-called scientific whaling to take the government of Japan to the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea."

But the Australian government says it has ruled out legal action, and will continue to use diplomacy to persuade Japan to rethink its whaling policies.