Australia presses Japan over whale hunt

Australia has stepped up pressure on Japan to end its controversial whale hunt in the southern ocean, dispatching a surveillance vessel that will gather evidence for a possible legal challenge to the cull.

The Oceanic Viking, an armed icebreaker normally used to apprehend poachers, left a naval base near Perth yesterday and will track the fleet for 20 days, local media reported today.

Australian customs officials do not have the authority to board the Japanese ships and, in a conciliatory gesture, the Oceanic Viking’s twin 50mm machine guns will be stowed below deck.

In addition, it will not share information on the fleet’s location with protesters from Greenpeace and Sea Shepherd.

The Oceanic Viking’s dispatch came as Britain and other anti-whaling countries stepped up their campaign to end Japan’s annual “scientific” hunts. Japan insists the missions are vital to a better understanding of the mammals’ migratory, feeding and reproductive habits.

Last month, 30 countries and the EU issued a written protest. Japan agreed to drop plans to kill 50 endangered humpbacks, but said it would proceed with the slaughter of almost 1,000 other whales.

Britain’s fisheries minister, Jonathan Shaw, today told Japan’s deputy ambassador, Wataru Nishigahiro, of Britain’s outrage at the lethal research in the Antarctic.

“Japan’s slaughter of whales in the name of so-called science is unacceptably cruel, scientifically unnecessary and of no economic value,” he said.

He said Tokyo “must realise the serious damage that whaling does to [Japan’s] image here and around the world”, adding: “Britain cannot understand why Japan chooses to defy international opinion, and we will continue to oppose all attempts by Japan to undermine the worldwide ban on commercial whaling.”

Japan has killed around 7,000 minke whales in the name of research since the International Whaling Commission banned commercial whaling in 1986. This year’s target cull of 935 minke and 50 endangered fin whales is the biggest so far.

The cull has strained ties between Japan and the Australian Labor government of Kevin Rudd, who took office at the end of last year promising to take a tougher line than his conservative predecessor, John Howard.

Some opposition MPs, however, claimed Rudd had delayed the Oceanic Viking’s departure in an attempt to limit the diplomatic fallout amid reports that the whalers had already killed between one-third and half of their quota.