Australia and New Zealand are to launch separate investigations into the collision between a Japanese whaling ship and a speedboat.
Australia and New Zealand are to launch separate investigations into the collision between a Japanese whaling ship and a speedboat belonging to the marine conservation group Sea Shepherd.
The Australian government stopped short of sending a patrol ship to Antarctic waters a day after anti-whaling activists claimed their hi-tech boat, the Ady Gil, had been deliberately rammed by the Japanese patrol boat, the Shonan Maru No 2.
The incident, in which one activist suffered cracked ribs, marked a dramatic escalation in hostilities between whalers and campaigners.
Sea Shepherd’s founder, Paul Watson, called on the Australian navy to protect the group’s remaining ships, the Steve Irwin and a converted harpoon vessel, the Bob Barker.
“We now have a real whale war on our hands and we have no intention of retreating,” he said.
The group today sent its helicopter out to search for Japan’s whale processing ship, while other Sea Shepherd members were frantically removing fuel and other pollutants from the sinking Ady Gil.
Australia’s deputy prime minister, Julia Gillard, called for calm on both sides while the country’s maritime safety authority investigated the collision.
“It concerns me deeply. It’s clear that emotions are running high and that lives are at risk,” she told reporters. “It seems miraculous to me, having seen the video, that lives were not lost.
“We are strenuously opposed to whaling and strenuously opposed to violence at sea. We believe in the right to protest, but we believe in the right to peaceful protest.”
Maritime authorities in New Zealand, where the Ady Gil is registered, said they had already launched an investigation and were looking into a complaint about Sea Shepherd’s conduct by Japanese whaling authorities.
Both sides have offered conflicting accounts of their brief, but violent, encounter late on Tuesday afternoon in Commonwealth Bay.
Sea Shepherd said its boat had been at a standstill on impact, while the hunt’s organisers in Tokyo claimed the Ady Gil had veered into the Shonan Maru‘s path in an attempt to cut it off.
Japan’s top government spokesperson, Hirofumi Hirano, called the incident “extremely regrettable”.
“As the boat that was hit is registered in New Zealand, we are rigorously protesting this to the New Zealand government,” he said. “We are strongly demanding that this doesn’t happen again.”
Foreign ministry spokesperson Yasuhisa Kawamura said Sea Shepherd had committed an act of sabotage that had jeopardised the safety of the Japanese crew. “These acts should be strongly condemned,” he said. “Violence will not bring about a solution to this issue.
“I underline that the collision took place at the end of the incessant and continued dangerous acts taken by the Sea Shepherd’s boat.”
Japan’s government said it was considering strengthening security for the whaling fleet, but did not elaborate. The fleet aims to cull almost 1 000 mainly minke whales before it returns to port in the spring.
It was not immediately clear what, if any, legal action the Australian and New Zealand authorities could take against either side.
Don Rothwell, an expert in law at the Australian National University, said any legal action against the captain of the Shonan Maru would probably take place in New Zealand. The International Maritime Organisation in London could decide to act on reports that the vessel fled the scene of the collision, he added.
While the Sea Shepherd organisation could sue the whaling ship’s master for negligence, the whaling fleet could try and have the Ady Gil‘s crew charged with attempting to interfere with its navigation systems.
“I am not suggesting they were completely at fault yesterday, but Sea Shepherd operate really at the very outer edge of the law and it is amazing what they get away with,” Rothwell told the Associated Press.
Japan’s media broke its tradition of largely ignoring the country’s annual “scientific” whaling expeditions. TV networks showed video footage of the collision taken from aboard the Shonan Maru, while two newspapers carried front-page photographs of the incident.
New reports of the clash suggested the anti-whaling activists had been to blame. “Sea Shepherd boat veers into path of patrol ship,” ran the headline on the website of the Yomiuri Shimbun, Japan’s biggest-selling newspaper.
Australian news coverage was less sympathetic towards the whalers.
The Age newspaper called on the government to intervene in the dispute. “It is time the Australian government stepped up its responses to a situation that is now intolerable. It is no longer sufficient to advise caution on both sides,” it said.
The Australian prime minister, Kevin Rudd, has threatened to take legal action to stop the whale hunts, which take place in Antarctic territories claimed by Australia but not recognised by Japan.
But environmental campaigners accused Rudd of quietly reneging on threats to take Japan to the International Court of Justice amid concerns that it could damage expanding trade and security ties between Tokyo and Canberra.
Gillard insisted that the government remained committed to ending the hunts through diplomatic or legal means.
“On the issue of commercial whaling, the government’s position is this: we continue to forcefully put our position to the Japanese government and we continue to forcefully put that in a proper and legal way.
“If ultimately, the matter about whaling cannot be resolved diplomatically, then we reserve our rights to initiate international legal action.”
Bob Brown, the leader of Australia’s Greens, called on the government to replace the $1,8-million Ady Gil and send the bill to Tokyo. “This is a crass act of violence by the Japanese whaling fleet backed up by the Japanese government,” he said. - guardian.co.uk