Environmentalists claimed victory yesterday after Japan halted its annual Antarctic whaling cull following weeks of harassment by a militant conservationist group.
The US-based Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, which has been stalking the whaling fleet with their own vessels, claimed that the Japanese ships had managed to harpoon just 30 whales, a fraction of their 945 target. "We've shut them down basically," Sea Shepherd captain Paul Watson told The Independent by satellite from aboard the MY Steve Irwin. "It's silly to say they've suspended the hunt. We suspended them."
But 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 are considering several options," said Tatsuya Nakaoku. The whaling expedition set sail on 2 December and was due to return home in March or April.
The Antarctic facedown is the latest in a string of confrontations between both sides during the annual cull. Last year, Sea Shepherd's powerboat the Ady Gil, was sliced in two during a collision with the Japanese whaling security ship Shonan Maru II. Pete Bethune, the captain of the Ady Gil, was arrested, tried and given a suspended sentence in a Tokyo court after he boarded the Shonan Maru in protest.
The Japanese fleet's annual "scientific whaling" expedition exploits a loophole in the 1986 whaling moratorium to target roughly 1,000 minke, fin and other whales in the Southern Ocean. Conservationists, however, say the hunts are cover for commercial whaling because the whale meat that is not used for study is sold for consumption.
Cables leaked last month by Wiki- Leaks revealed that Japan had pressed the US 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 NGO status of Sea Shepherd. Senior whaling negotiator, Monica Medina, is reported as saying the group "does not deserve tax exempt status based on their aggressive and harmful actions". Another cable records a Japanese minister calling for "action" against Sea Shepherd's tax status, which, he said, created "a very dangerous situation on the seas".
But Sea Shepherd denies endangering the Japanese fleet and says the cat-and-mouse game will continue, despite yesterday's announcement. "They're not taking their ships out of the Southern Ocean, so it could be a ploy to get us to pull away," said Mr Watson.