Published: February 18, 2011
TOKYO — Japan will cut short this year’s annual whale hunt in the Antarctic Ocean after obstruction by an environmental group largely prevented its ships from killing whales, the government said Friday.
The Agriculture Ministry, which runs Japan’s widely criticized research whaling program, said harassment by the group, the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, had kept its catch far below its annual target of whales. A spokesman for the ministry said on Friday that 170 minke whales and two fin whales had been caught this season, far below the annual targets of 850 minke and 50 fin.
The recall of Japan’s fleet is the first time that environmentalists have succeeded in cutting short the annual hunts, which Japan says are necessary for scientific research. Critics say the hunts are an effort to evade a global moratorium on commercial whaling.
Friday’s announcement was welcomed by Sea Shepherd, which is based in Washington State. In a statement on its Web site, the group said three of its ships would remain in the Southern Ocean to “escort” the Japanese fleet northward.
In recent years, Sea Shepherd has sent ships to the Antarctic to block Japan’s whaling fleet, turning the hunts into a game of cat-and-mouse that has received increasing media attention. The environmentalists try to block the Japanese by tangling the ships’ propellers with ropes or putting their own vessels in between the whalers and their quarry.
The ministry said the group had harassed the Japanese ships by shining laser beams to temporarily blind crew members and throwing flares onto the whaling vessels. Agriculture Minister Michihiko Kano told reporters on Friday that the decision to recall the fleet was made to ensure the safety of the crews and ships.
The ministry said its whaling fleet had often been able to simply outrun the environmentalists. It could not do so this year because Sea Shepherd had faster vessels, the government said.
Japanese newspapers reported that there had been resistance to cutting short the hunt for fear of appearing to cave in to pressure from foreign environmentalists.
Domestic critics have called the program an anachronism, because private fishing companies have dropped out under international pressure and the demand for whale meat is declining. Few Japanese eat whale anymore, and the meat from the hunt has piled up in freezers, or been given to children for school lunches.