Japanese whaler rams hi-tech protest boat

In a dramatic escalation of the annual hostilities off Antarctica between Japan’s whaling fleet and militant protesters, a Japanese ship rammed a hi-tech protest boat today, slicing off its bow and effectively scuttling it.

None of the six crew were seriously injured, although one suffered broken ribs, when the Shonan Maru, a security vessel, collided with the Ady Gil, a speedboat deployed by the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society. The group accused the Japanese of an unprovoked “hit and run” attack, and said it was fortunate no one had been in the bow, which was completely sheared off.

However, the Japanese Fisheries Agency blamed the crew, saying the Ady Gil had abruptly slowed down while crossing the path of the larger vessel, which had been unable to avoid a collision. It said that Sea Shepherd’s “obstructing activities … are dangerous acts that threaten the vessels engaged in scientific whaling as well as the lives and properties of the crew”.

A small, US-based group, Sea Shepherd has made a name for itself in recent years by pursuing and harassing the Japanese fleet in the icy waters of the Southern Ocean. There have been collisions before, although never causing such serious damage, as protesters interposed themselves between harpoon ships and their prey.

Each side routinely accuses the other of dangerous tactics in the cat and mouse games staged at the bottom of the world. Before yesterday’s collision, which was captured on film, activists threw stink bombs at the Nisshin Maru, the main factory ship, and dropped ropes in an effort to snarl its propeller.

Last night the Ady Gil – a futuristic trimaran which resembles a spacecraft – was taking on water and sinking. Sea Shepherd said it was unclear whether it would be possible to salvage the $1.5m (£940,000) boat, which has been bankrolled by a Californian businessman with the same name.

Chris Aultman, a spokesman, accused the Japanese of deliberately ramming the smaller boat. “At the time of the collision, the vessel was dead in the water,” he told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.

“It was motionless and there was no confrontation taking place between the two vessels.

“The Shonan Maru just … took upon itself to strike the vessel. Luckily no one was in the bow at the time of the collision, or they certainly would have been killed instantly.”

Sea Shepherd still has two ships in the area, one of which, the Bob Barker, rescued the Ady Gil’s crew. Paul Watson, the group’s president, said activists would not be deterred by the whalers’ “extremism”. “The Japanese whalers have now escalated this conflict very violently,” he said. “We have a real whale war on our hands now, and we have no intention of retreating.”

Japan, which sends its fleet to Antarctica during the southern hemisphere’s summer, claims its whaling programme is for scientific research purposes. It is planning to catch 935 minke whales and 50 endangered fin whales this year.

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