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February 16, 2011

Australia Lacks Confirmation Japan Will Halt Antarctic Whale Hunt

by Phil Mercer

Australian officials say they have received no formal word that Japan plans to call off its annual whale hunt in the Southern Ocean. Japan says it is suspending the controversial hunt because of interference from environmentalists. However, Japan’s fisheries agency says its whaling operations had been suspended because of safety concerns.

According to Australia’s Environment Ministry, it is not clear if the hunt will resume or if the Japanese fleet will head home soon.

What is apparent is that this year’s hunt has not gone smoothly. Although precise figures are not available, it is thought the Japanese have caught fewer than 100 whales out of a target of more than 900.

Boats operated by the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, a U.S. activist group, have tailed and harassed the whaling fleet. Anti-whaling activists say their strategy of placing vessels in the way of Japanese factory ships has hampered the hunt.

Sea Shepherd spokesman Peter Hammarstedt says their persistence has paid off.

"I think it's a combination of things that have led to victory down here in the southern oceans," Hammarstedt noted, "one is our efforts to blockade them here and every day we prevent them from whaling we're costing them literally millions of dollars in lost profit. And we speak the only language that these poachers understand and that's the language of profit and loss."

The activists were quoted as saying they would "continue following the fleet until it was clear it had headed north to Japan."

Commercial whaling is banned worldwide, but Japan conducts what it calls "scientific" whaling. The Japanese fishing authorities say up to 900 whales are hunted a year, so they can be studied. The meat, however, is sold back in Japan.

Some Japanese consider whale meat a delicacy, and many object to the hunting ban as interference in the country’s traditional fishing activities.

Australia calls the practice an "unnecessary slaughter" and New Zealand has also voiced its objections.

Last year, Canberra filed suit against Japan at the International Court of Justice in a bid to stop the Antarctic hunt. A decision could be years away.