December 22, 2005

Japanese whalers and Greenpeace in remote ocean battle

By Michelle Nichols

CANBERRA (Reuters) - A Japanese whaling fleet and
Greenpeace environmental activists are involved in a stand-off
in the remote Southern Ocean near the coast of Antarctica with
the two sides accusing each other of ramming their vessels.

Greenpeace said that after a month-long search it had
tracked down six Japanese ships -- which set out on November 8
to conduct what Tokyo says is a scientific whaling program --
several thousand kilometers (miles) south of Perth.

Two Greenpeace ships Esperanza and Arctic Sunrise launched
inflatable boats on Wednesday to harass Japanese "catcher
boats," positioning them between the whale and harpoon gun.

Then several more "catcher boats," which had been whaling
further away, returned with their load to the mother ship where
the whales are cut up.

"So the Esperanza positioned itself immediately behind the
mother ship so the catcher boats couldn't offload their whale
carcasses. Some of the catcher boats tried to push the
Esperanza out of the way by colliding with it," Greenpeace
Australia Pacific Chief Executive Steve Shallhorn told Reuters
on Thursday.

Japan abandoned commercial whaling in 1986 in line with an
international moratorium and began what it calls a research
program the following year. Critics said the program was a
disguised commercial hunt for meat for upscale restaurants.

Despite international disapproval, Japan announced in June
plans to nearly double its annual catch of minke whales to 850
and add fin whales and eventually humpbacks -- two types of
whales conservationists say whose survival is threatened.


Australia is a staunch critic of Japan's whaling program
and Prime Minister John Howard reiterated his opposition in a
meeting with Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi on the
margins of a regional summit in Malaysia last week.

Howard warned both Greenpeace and the Japanese whalers on
Thursday against any dangerous behavior.

"I do not support action which endangers lives or breaks
the law," he told reporters in Sydney.

The Japanese Fisheries Agency said it was the Greenpeace
ship that had rammed the Japanese vessel and that it was
considering filing criminal charges against some Greenpeace
members who tried to make their way onto the Japanese ships.

"Our research whaling is in line with an international
treaty and is perfectly legitimate," said Hideki Moronuki, head
of the whaling section at the agency.

"We repeatedly announced this to the Greenpeace boats and
sprayed water from our water cannons as a warning, but they
ignored it all and rammed into our ship," he told Reuters.

Greenpeace said it planned to continue its action against
the Japanese fleet for at least another month.

"As long we can maintain fuel supply in our vessels we
think we can be down here for many, many weeks yet. The season
goes right through until March and we are hoping to get in the
way as much as we can," Greenpeace activist Shane Rattenbury
told Australian radio via satellite phone from the Arctic

(Additional reporting by George Nishiyama in Tokyo)