January 8, 2006

Greenpeace and Japanese Whaling Standoff Escalates

CANBERRA -- A standoff between environmental activists Greenpeace and a Japanese whaling fleet in remote icy waters near Antarctica has escalated, with both sides accusing each other of dangerously ramming their vessels.

Greenpeace has been chasing and disrupting the Japanese whalers for more than two weeks by deploying inflatable boats to harass Japanese "catcher boats," positioning them between the whales and harpoon guns.

Shortly before Christmas, both sides accused each other of ramming their boats, but the confrontation escalated on Sunday with another collision in the Southern Ocean.

"There is no way to describe this as anything but a deliberate ramming, which placed the safety of our ship and the lives of its crew in severe danger," Greenpeace Expedition Leader Shane Rattenbury said in a statement.

Japan's Institute of Cetacean Research told the Australian Broadcasting Corp. in statement that its ship, the Nisshin Maru, was deliberately rammed by Greenpeace's Arctic Sunrise while cargo was being transferred.

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 scientific program was a disguised commercial hunt for meat to supply 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 month.