Greenpeace activists said Sunday they had chased Japanese whalers out of whaling grounds off Antarctica — setting off this year's round of a cat-and-mouse contest that has become a sometimes dangerous feature of the hunting debate.
Activists aboard a Greenpeace ship issued a statement saying they had pursued the Nisshin Maru and Yushin Maru ships in dense fog and over hundreds of miles.
"We came here to stop the fleet from whaling and we have done that. Now they are out of the hunting grounds they should stay out," said Greenpeace Japan campaigner Sakyo Noda.
But Greenpeace added that it expects the ships to refuel and offload whale meat onto a tanker outside the whale grounds, raising the possibility that the ships might try to return.
Greenpeace's ship Esperanza confronted the Japanese whalers in the Antarctic Ocean early Saturday after a 10-day search, and the hunting ships immediately steamed off with the activists in pursuit, the environmentalists said in a statement.
They warned they would take non-violent action to try to stop the ships from killing whales — a promise that in the past has led to activists in speed boats trying to put themselves between whales and Japanese harpoons, and once to a collision of ships.
A spokesman for Japan's whale hunt called Greenpeace's actions illegal and demanded it stop its disruptive actions.
"Greenpeace actions are illegal under international law (and) it's time the public stopped treating Greenpeace as heroes," Glenn Inwood, spokesman for the Institute of Cetacean Research, in Tokyo, Japan, said Monday. "It's time the public saw this fringe group for what they really are: environmental imperialists who are trying to dictate their morals to the world."
Target of 1,000 whales
Japan dispatched its whaling fleet to the icy water of Antarctica in November to kill about 1,000 whales under a program that Tokyo says is for scientific purposes, but which anti-whaling nations and activists scoff at as a front for commercial whaling.
Under worldwide pressure, Japan last month abandoned its plan to include 50 humpback whales in this season's hunt — the first major hunt of humpback whales since the 1960s. But it still plans to kill 935 minke whales and 50 fin whales.
Commercial hunts of humpbacks have been banned worldwide since 1966, and commercial whaling overall since 1986.
Japan's whaling fleet is run by a government-backed research institute and operates under an International Whaling Commission clause that allows the killing of whales for scientific purposes. But critics say the program is a shield for Japan to keep its whaling industry alive until it can overturn the 1986 ban.
Greenpeace and the anti-whaling group Sea Shepherd sent ships after the whalers to try to prevent the hunt by harassing the Japanese vessels. Their first task was to find the Japanese ships, the next to keep up with them.
In previous years, the whalers have been able to avoid the environmentalists for weeks and sometimes to evade them with their faster ships. In 2006, Greenpeace ship Arctic Sunrise collided with a Japanese whaler during a tense standoff over whales, causing minor damage but no injuries.
Karli Thomas, a Greenpeace spokeswoman aboard Esperanza, said the ship spotted six Japanese whalers early Saturday.
"The first thing they did when we approached them was to scatter and run," Thomas said. "We stayed with the factory ship the Nisshin Maru, which is always the major target."
Australia urges restraint
The Australian government urged both sides not to do anything dangerous.
"The people actually at the site, on the high seas, need to be very careful," Assistant Treasurer Chris Bowen told reporters in Sydney. "They need to exercise restraint because their own personal safety is at risk and the personal safety of others is at risk."
Australia, a strong opponent of whaling, for the first time this season sent a government-hired ship to collect photo and video evidence for a possible legal challenge to Japan's scientific whaling program.
The ship left port last week and has not yet reached Antarctic waters. Esperanza left a New Zealand port in December and entered Antarctic waters 10 days ago.
The Japanese hunt is due to last until April. The hunt was cut short last year after a fire damaged the Nisshin Maru.