Japanese whalers blame 'sabotage' by activists as fewer whales are killed

A Japanese fishing fleet is expected to return from its latest expedition having killed just over half its target number of whales.

The 8,000-tonne Nisshin Maru factory ship and five other whaling vessels were due to dock in Japan last night after returning from the Antarctic laden with the meat from 551 minke whales caught during a four-month "research" voyage which was repeatedly targeted by animal rights activists.

The catch was far below the target of 935 set by the Japanese authorities, which in turn blamed the campaigners, the American-based Sea Shepherd Conservation Society and Greenpeace, for reducing the amount of time it could devote to hunting for "scientific purposes".

Japan insists its self-declared annual quota of 1,000 whales is part of a research programme permitted by the International Whaling Commission. Opponents claim the yearly hunt is commercial whaling in disguise and should be banned. Activists on board a vessel from the Sea Shepherd group repeatedly clashed with the Japanese fleet as it plied the Southern Ocean looking for minke whales and the much larger fin whales.

A spokesman for Japan's Fisheries Agency said: "Sabotage by activists is a major factor behind our failure to achieve our target. We did not have enough time for research because we had to avoid sabotage."

A plan to hunt 50 humpbacks was abandoned after international criticism.