They have been commissioned to catch 38 Minke whales over the next two months for what Iceland says is scientific purposes, despite opposition from international governments including the US and Britain, animal welfare groups and environmentalists.

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Icelandic state radio has reported that all three ships the Sigurbjorg the Njordur and the Halldor Sigurdsson have left harbours around the country after being delayed Friday by bad weather.

No kills have been reported from any of the boats. Iceland has refused to give information about the ship’s routes and has rejected media requests to monitor the killings, ordering captains not to fire harpoons if other vessels are near.

The government says the cull is needed to study the stomach contents of the mammals to measure their effect on fish stocks such as cod, which are vital to the national economy. It has described criticism of the decision to resume whaling as “irrational”.

“We should be able to utilise our resources sustainably. But of course we shouldn’t be catching endangered species whether they are fish, whales, seals or any other animal, but if they are in a state to be harvested, they should be harvested,” says Icelands Fisheries Minister, Arni Mathiesen.

Whale meat not used by scientists for research will be sold to consumers in Iceland. The country’s Marine Research Institute estimates there are 43,000 minke whales in Icelandic waters and says the hunts will not affect the population.

Conservationists say they want to draw the world’s attention to the hunt. The International Fund for Animal Welfare has representatives in Reykjavik, the capital, and the Greenpeace flagship Rainbow Warrior is on its way to the country.

The International Whaling Commission banned commercial whaling in 1986 to protect the endangered mammals, but approved restricted hauls for research programs. Iceland carried out research whaling for three years after the ban, but halted the hunts altogether in 1989.

Japan also hunts whales for what it says are research purposes and has said it is looking for ways to resume commercial hunting.

Norway has ignored the ban since 1993.

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