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FILE PHOTO: Japanese whaling vessel the Nisshin Maru returns to the Shimonoseki port in southwestern Japan in this photo taken by Kyodo on March 31, 2017, after it and two other vessels hunted 333 minke whales in the Antarctic Ocean. Mandatory credit Kyodo/via REUTERS

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By Elaine Lies

TOKYO (Reuters) - A recent law promoting whaling allows Japan to take a key step towards resuming commercial hunting of the giant mammals that are "a great source of food," officials said on Thursday.

Japan defies international protests to carry out what it calls scientific research whaling, having repeatedly said its ultimate goal is to whale commercially again. In the 2016-2017 season, its fleet took 333 minke whales in the Antarctic.

The new law, passed in June, will help enshrine as a "national responsibility" an activity that was previously just a tacit policy, said Shigeki Takaya, director of the Whaling Affairs Office at Japan's Fisheries Agency.

"While the government has given its support to the implementation of scientific research into whales, it is heartening to see that the law clarifies its position even further," Takaya told a news conference.

In 2014, the International Court of Justice ruled that Japan should halt Antarctic whaling.

Japan suspended its hunt for one season, to re-tool its whaling programme with measures such as cutting the number of whales and species targeted, but resumed hunting in the 2015-2016 season.

Japan has long maintained that most whale species are not endangered and that eating whale is part of its culture. It began scientific whaling in 1987, a year after an international whaling moratorium began.

The meat ends up on store shelves, even though most Japanese no longer eat it.

"This resource exists," said Kiyoshi Ejima, a member of the upper house of parliament from Shimonoseki, a whaling port in western Japan that forms part of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's electoral district.

"There are minke whales down in the Antarctic that are of body weight of about 5,000 kilograms (11,000 lb) to 10,000 kg (22,000 lb)," added Ejima, one of the lawmakers behind the bill.

"These are a great source of food and my position is that we should harness this."

But activist Nanami Kurasawa, from the Dolphin and Whale Action Network, said the law, which sped through parliament in barely a week, was enacted without sufficient debate or attention and actually proves that whaling is unsustainable.

"It's clear that this industry cannot stand on its own two feet without government subsidy," she told the news conference.

(Reporting by Elaine Lies; Editing by Clarence Fernandez)

Reuters