IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Japan cuts short Antarctic whale hunt

Japan has decided to pull its whaling fleet out of the Antarctic and end this year's whale hunt early after a deadly fire crippled its mother ship, officials said Wednesday.
Japanese whaling ship the Nisshin Maru is seen being shadowed in the Southern Ocean
The Nisshin Maru, a Japanese whaling ship, is shadowed Feb. 8 in the Southern Ocean off Antarctica by the Robert Hunter, a protest ship flying a pirate flag. A week later, the Nisshin Maru caught fire in what was deemed an accident. Ho / Sea Shepherd Conservation Society via Reuters
/ Source: The Associated Press

Japan has decided to pull its whaling fleet out of the Antarctic and end this year's whale hunt early after a deadly fire crippled its mother ship, officials said Wednesday.

The head of the institute in charge of the whaling fleet also strongly protested activities by an environmental group to disrupt the hunt, saying the ships were rammed and bombarded with smoke canisters.

The fire aboard the Nisshin Maru two weeks ago killed one crew member and left the vessel unable to sail under its own power for 10 days, prompting strong protests from the New Zealand government and from Greenpeace over potential oil and chemical spills or damage to penguin colonies.

"This is the first time in 20 years that we've had to cancel our research," said Takahide Naruko, the head of the Fisheries Agency's Far Seas Division. "We are very disappointed."

The six-ship fleet had been originally scheduled to continue its hunt through the end of March and return to Japan in mid-April. It had a target catch of 860 whales, Naruko said, and they killed 508.

Northwest Pacific hunt next
Naruko said the cause of the fire was under investigation. But he said he hoped the Nisshin Maru would be repaired in time for the next hunt, in the northwest Pacific from May, when they are planning to kill another 350 whales.

The fleet is part of a whaling program that Japan claims provides crucial scientific data for the International Whaling Commission — which sanctions the annual hunts — on populations, feeding habits and distribution of the mammals in the seas near Antarctica.

The program has long been the target of environmental groups, which claim it is a pretext for Japan to keep its whalers afloat despite an international ban on commercial whaling in effect since the 1980s. After researchers complete their studies of the killed whales, the meat is sold in Japan for food.

Naruto said that although the number of whales killed fell short of the target, there would still be a sufficient amount to conduct some scientific research — and to distribute for sale.

"I don't think there will be a significant increase in the cost of whale meat," he said.

Greenpeace and other environmental groups claim sufficient research could be done without killing the whales.

The protests, led by the Sea Shepherd group, were particularly heated this year.

Activists' tactics called 'reckless'
Japanese officials on Tuesday showed videos of protesters aboard a Sea Shepherd ship — flying a pirate flag — launching smoke canisters, throwing containers filled with chemicals and dropping ropes and nets in attempts to entangle the screws of the whalers' engines.

One video also showed a protest ship ramming one of the whaling vessels.

"Such vicious and reckless actions by the Sea Shepherd not only violate the international agreements established in order to prohibit piracy and guarantee the safety of navigation, they are inexcusable criminal acts," said Hiroshi Hatanaka, head of the Institute of Cetacean Research, which is in charge of the hunts.

The accident has been a major embarrassment for Japan, one of the main proponents of lifting the commercial whaling ban.

New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark said Monday the Nisshin Maru — carrying 343,000 gallons of fuel oil — posed a huge risk to the pristine Antarctic environment and called it a "disaster." Greenpeace offered to tow the ship into calmer seas.

The whalers declined the offer.

Japanese officials stress that no oil has leaked from the ship and said it has safely moved away from the Antarctic coast under its own power last weekend after floundering near the world's biggest Adelie penguin rookery.