REPORTING FROM SEOUL -– Bringing a diplomatic end to an unwieldy high-seas drama, three Australian anti-whaling protesters detained after boarding a Japanese vessel in the Indian Ocean will be released to Australian authorities, the government in Canberra announced Tuesday.
The trio, who illegally boarded a whaling support vessel, the Shonan Maru 2, in the darkness on Sunday, will not be charged under an agreement with the Japanese government, Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard's office told reporters.
But Gillard denounced the tactics that are part of the years-long battle between Japanese whalers and fierce environmentalists who want the Asian nation to stop killing whales.
"Activity of the nature undertaken by these three Australians is unacceptable," Gillard said through a spokesman. "No one should assume that because an agreement has been reached with the Japanese government in this instance, that individuals will not be charged and convicted in the future."
Japan's whaling practices have strained relations with such regional neighbors as New Zealand and Australia, both of which oppose Japanese annual whaling in the Southern Ocean around Antarctica. But officials say that the best way to halt the practice is through diplomacy and possibly international court action, not foolhardy open-ocean protests.
Australia in 2011 filed a complaint against Japan at the world court in the Hague to stop Southern Ocean scientific whaling. A decision is expected in 2013 or later.
But activist groups such as the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society have kept up the pressure on Japanese whaling ships, last year forcing the nation to cut short its annual whale hunt with less than a fifth of its quota. One Sea Shepherd boat sank in a collision with the Japanese fleet last year as the activists harassed the whale boats en route to the killing grounds.
In the latest incident, Sea Shepherd said the three activists reached the Japanese vessel -- a former harpoon boat that now performs a security role for the whaling fleet -- in two small boats and climbed over its rails.
They came with the message, "Return us to shore in Australia and then remove yourself from our waters," Sea Shepherd said.
Along with Iceland and Norway, Japan is one of one three countries that hunt whales. The nation introduced scientific whaling to skirt the commercial whaling ban under a 1986 moratorium, insisting that it has the right to monitor the whales' effect on its fishing industry.
-- John M. Glionna
Photo: A photo released by Sea Shepherd Conservation shows anti-whaling activists aboard a motorboat approaching the Japanese whaling ship Shonan Maru 2 off Australia. Credit: Sea Shepherd Conservation