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Japan has rejected condemnation over its slaughter of 122 pregnant whales in Antarctic waters, saying the "scientific" work confirmed the animals were fertile.

The annual bloodbath in the Southern Ocean made international headlines last week after Fairfax Media reported the gruesome results.  The hunt takes place in Australian whale sanctuaries in contravention of international law. 

The Japanese fleet killed 333 Antarctic minke whales. In addition to the 122 pregnant animals, 114 were juveniles.

In a statement on Monday, the Japanese embassy told Fairfax Media it did not specifically target pregnant whales, even though they comprised more than 95 per cent of the mature females killed.

The embassy said its latest findings were similar to that of its previous Southern Ocean “surveys" and suggested the whales "have sound fertility".

Critics say Japan’s whaling program is a cover for commercial whaling. The whale flesh is sold at markets and restaurants, and Japan has openly stated it wants to resume commercial whaling in the Southern Ocean, which contains some of the world’s healthiest whale populations. 

Whale numbers in Japan’s coastal and offshore waters – where it also kills whales in the name of “science” – have been badly depleted.

Humane Society International senior program manager Alexia Wellbelove said Japan was collecting data on pregnant whales “to show the whale populations are recovering” to bolster the case for commercial whaling.

She said regardless of whale numbers, Japan’s annual hunt was inhumane and the data could be obtained through non-lethal means.

“When they kill the whale ... the harpoon goes into the body and explodes, sending shrapnel out. It can take on average 30 to 40 minutes for the whale to die,” she said. 

“Sometimes it’s quicker, sometimes it’s an hour or longer. Sometimes they have to hang them upside down in the water to drown them because they don’t die from the harpoon.”

Japan said its latest “research program” has been reviewed by the International Whaling Commission’s scientific committee.

Japan would "continue to carefully explain the objectives and scientific basis of the research program so that the understanding of the international community will be deepened".

The whaling commission meets in Brazil in September. It is due to consider the findings of an internal review, instigated by Australia, that examined the validity of Japan’s claims it must kill whales to gather scientific data. Japan is likely to fight any adverse findings.

Labor says Japan’s whaling position is “absurd” and the Turnbull government “can’t continue to turn a blind eye to this”.

Environment and Energy Minister Josh Frydenberg last week said the government was "deeply disappointed" in the Japanese whaling activity and was working through the whaling commission to end commercial and so-called scientific whaling.

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