Tokyo (AFP) - Japanese whaling ships returned home from the Antarctic on Saturday for the first time in nearly 30 years with no catch onboard, after a UN court ordered an end to their annual hunt, local media reported.
The two ships -- the 724-ton Yushinmaru and the 747-ton Daini (No 2) Yushinmaru -- arrived at a port in western Shimonoseki city, a major whaling base.
It was the first return by Japanese whalers without catching any whales since 1987 when the country began the annual "research" hunt in the Antarctic, the Asahi Shimbun said.
The two ships did not face any attacks by anti-whaling activists during their three-months voyage, the daily added.
Tokyo had said this season's excursion would not involve any lethal hunting. Harpoons normally used in the capture of the giant mammals were removed from the vessels.
Crew members on the two boats carried out "sighting surveys" and took skin samples from the huge marine mammals, news reports said.
The non-lethal research came after the International Court of Justice -- the highest court of the United Nations -- ruled in March last year that Tokyo was abusing a scientific exemption set out in the 1986 moratorium on whaling.
The UN court concluded Tokyo was carrying out a commercial hunt under a veneer of science.
After the ruling, Japan said it would not hunt during this winter's Antarctic mission, but has since expressed its intention to resume "research whaling" in 2015-16.
In a new plan submitted to the International Whaling Commission (IWC) and its Scientific Committee, Tokyo set an annual target of 333 minke whales for future hunts, down from some 900 under the previous programme.
It also defined the research period as 12 years from fiscal 2015 in response to the court's criticism of the programme's open-ended nature.
"By collecting scientific data, we aim to resume commercial whaling," agriculture, forestry and fisheries minister Yoshimasa Hayashi told reporters in the city as he attended a ceremony for their return.
Japan killed 251 minke whales in the Antarctic in the 2013-14 season and 103 the previous year, far below its target because of direct action by conservationist group Sea Shepherd.
Despite widespread international opprobrium, Japan has continued to hunt whales using the scientific exemption, although it makes no secret of the fact that the meat from the creatures caught by taxpayer-funded ships ends up on dinner tables.