Australia sends patrols to shadow Japan whalers

Australia will send a fisheries patrol ship to shadow Japan’s whaling fleet near Antarctica and gather evidence for a possible international court challenge to halt the yearly slaughter, the government said on Wednesday.

The icebreaker Oceanic Viking, used for customs and fisheries policing, would leave for the Southern Ocean in days to follow the Japanese fleet, Foreign Minister Stephen Smith and Environment Minister Peter Garrett told journalists.

But to avoid a high-seas incident and ease concern in Tokyo, heavy machine guns on the ship and sidearms used by boarding crews would be locked in storage below decks, they said.

Separately, Greenpeace sent a ship on Wednesday to try and stop the Japanese fleet hunting whales.

Japan’s whaling fleet plans to hunt 935 minke whales, 50 fin whales and, for the first time in 40 years, 50 humpback whales for research over the Antarctic summer.

Humpbacks were hunted to near extinction until the International Whaling Commission ordered their protection in 1966.

Patrols by a low-flying A319 Airbus jet used by Australian Antarctic scientists would also follow and photograph the Japanese fleet, Foreign Minister Smith said.

“We are dealing here with the slaughter of whales, not scientific research. That’s our starting point and our end point,” Smith, whose centre-left Labour government won elections last month, partly on a promise of tougher anti-whaling action.

Japan has long resisted pressure to stop scientific whaling, insisting whaling is a cherished cultural tradition. Its fleet has killed 7 000 Antarctic minkes over the last 20 years.

“Japan’s whaling is being conducted in line with international treaties and for the purpose of scientific research.
We would like to win the understanding of others,” a Japanese Foreign Ministry spokesperson said in Tokyo.

Smith said photographic and video evidence gathered by the ship and aircraft would be used before any international legal tribunals to “make the point that what we are seeing is not scientific research, but the slaughter of whales”.

“If you read Australian lips, you’ll say that slaughtering whales is not scientific. It’s cruel, it’s barbaric and it’s unnecessary,” Garrett added.

Diplomatic protest

An Australian special envoy would formally convey opposition to the hunt to Tokyo and a separate diplomatic protest by anti-whaling nations was being prepared, Smith said.

The government was also getting legal advice for a case against Japan in international courts including the International Court of Justice in The Hague and the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea.

“All options are on the table, including utilising the whaling convention, utilising the endangered species convention,” he said, pointing to the 1973 Cites treaty, drawn up to protect threatened species.

Australian international law specialist Don Rothwell warned earlier this year that armed patrols would breach the 1959 Antarctic Treaty, which deemed Antarctica to be a demilitarised zone, and possibly spark an international incident.

Smith said he did not expect a diplomatic backlash from Tokyo, a major trading partner and security ally, but to ease concerns the patrol ship’s crew would keep the weapons below deck during the surveillance, expected to last up to 20 days.

Greenpeace, whose protest vessel left New Zealand on Wednesday to chase the Japanese fleet, said Australia was taking strong action which would encourage other nations to join the campaign against whaling.

“We’re going to try to stop it. We’ll put our inflatables between the whales and the harpoon,” Greenpeace Australia chief executive Steve Shallhorn told Reuters. - Reuters

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