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Planet Ark World Environment News Japan Cuts Short Antarctic Whale Hunt

Date: 03-Mar-07
Country: JAPAN
Author: Isabel Reynolds

The Nisshin Maru, the 8,000-tonne flagship of what Japan calls its research whaling fleet, restarted its engines at the weekend after being stranded in frigid waters since the fire, which killed a crewman.

The Nisshin Maru can sail under its own power, but given the damage to equipment from the fire, continuing whaling would be difficult, the agency said in a news release.

"We have been research whaling for 20 years, but this is the first time we have had to cut the expedition short," Fisheries Agency official Takahide Naruko told reporters in Tokyo. "It is very unfortunate."

The fleet has caught 505 minke whales and 3 fin whales since it set out in November last year, compared with a planned catch of 850 minke and 10 fin whales, Naruko said.

"We don't think this will have a major effect on the price of whale meat," he added.

The 20-year-old Nisshin Maru is due back in Tokyo in late March, when it will undergo an inspection to try to determine the cause of the fire. It is not clear whether the ship will be fit to return to service next year, Naruko said.

The hunt has come under growing pressure from environmental groups, who say it is cruel and violates a 1986 global ban on commercial whaling. The meat ends up in restaurants and on supermarket shelves.

The Institute of Cetacean Research, a partly government-funded body that oversees the whaling programme, published a letter of protest against environmental activist group Sea Shepherd on Wednesday.

Sea Shepherd rammed Japanese vessels during the hunt, threw harmful chemical substances and smoke bombs and released ropes and nets to try to jam the ships' propellers, the letter said, in what the institute referred to as acts of "spiteful and mindless terrorism."

"We don't think there was any direct connection," Naruko said when asked about possible links between Sea Shepherd's activities and the fire aboard the Nisshin Maru. "On the other hand, we can't say for certain that there was none."

The Japanese fleet sailed out of Antarctic waters on Wednesday, environmental group Greenpeace said in a statement, adding that its own ship, the Esperanza, had followed the Japanese fleet.

Environmentalists welcomed Japan's decision, after the Nisshin Maru's plight had sparked concern that oil or chemicals could spill into the Southern Ocean, close to the world's biggest Adelie penguin breeding colony.

"We acknowledge your grief at the loss of your crew member," Greenpeace said it told the crew of the Nisshin Maru in a radio message. "But this must be the last time your government sends you to the Southern Ocean to hunt whales and threaten the Antarctic environment. For the sake of the environment, the whales and your crew -- never again!"

Japan, which says whaling is a cultural tradition, has expressed increasing frustration with the International Whaling Commission in recent years. Earlier this month Tokyo hosted a special meeting of the commission aimed at shifting its focus to whale management and away from the moratorium -- but almost half the member countries boycotted the event.

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Reuters
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