Conservationists force Japanese to halt annual Antarctic whaling cull


MILITANT ENVIRONMENTALISTS are claiming a major victory against Japan after it halted its annual Antarctic whaling cull yesterday, amid reports its fleet could return to port with freezers almost bare.

The US-based Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, which has been harassing Japan’s fleet for weeks, says the ships have managed to harpoon just 30 whales, a fraction of its 945 target.

“We’ve shut them down, basically,” Sea Shepherd captain Paul Watson said by satellite phone from aboard the Steve Irwinship. “It’s silly to say they’ve suspended the hunt. We suspended them.”

A spokesman for Japan’s fisheries agency denied Mr Watson’s claims and said it was forced into the move for “safety” reasons after the whaling crew was put in jeopardy. He declined to say if the suspension was permanent or if the ships had left for home. “We haven’t decided yet,” said Tatsuya Nakaoku. “We are considering several options.”

Some Japanese news agencies said government officials were mulling over ordering the fleet home early. The whaling expedition left Japan on December 2nd, weeks later than usual, and is due home in March or April.

Greenpeace Japan claims the cull has been shortened because of the growing stockpile of unsold whale meat – more than 5,000 tonnes. The Antarctic facedown is the latest in a string of confrontations between both sides during the controversial annual cull.

Last year, Sea Shepherd’s powerboat, the Ady Gil, was sliced in two when it and the Japanese whaling security ship Shonan Maru 2collided. The boat’s captain, Pete Bethune, was arrested and tried in a Tokyo court after he boarded the Shonan Maruin protest.

Conservationists have for years been obstructing the Japanese fleet’s annual “scientific whaling” expedition, which exploits a loophole in the 1986 whaling moratorium to target roughly 1,000 minke, fin and other whales in the southern oceans.

Japan last year blamed its reduced catch – at 507 one of the smallest on record – on the harrying of its fleet.

Cables leaked last month by WikiLeaks revealed Japan had pressed the United States government to target Sea Shepherd as part of a secret deal that could have reduced the cull.

The four cables apparently showed US willingness to investigate the non-governmental organisation status of Sea Shepherd, which senior whaling negotiator Monica Medina is reported as saying: “does not deserve tax exempt status based on their aggressive and harmful actions”.

A cable dated November 2nd, 2009, records Japanese vice-minister for international affairs Shuji Yamada calling for “action” against Sea Shepherd’s tax status, “which he said created a very dangerous situation on the seas”.

Sea Shepherd denies endangering the Japanese fleet and says the cat-and-mouse game on the high seas will continue despite yesterday’s announcement.