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Japan suspends its whaling expedition after harassment by Sea Shepherd anti-whaling group

February 16, 2011 | 12:58 am

A Japanese whaling ship

TOKYO — Japan has temporarily suspended its annual Antarctic whaling after repeated harassment by a conservationist group, a government official said Wednesday.

Sea Shepherd Conservation Society ships have been chasing the Japanese whaling fleet for weeks in the icy seas off Antarctica, trying to block Japan's annual whale hunt, planned for up to 945 whales.

Japan has halted the hunt since Feb. 10 after persistent "violent" disruptions by the anti-whaling protesters, said fisheries agency official Tatsuya Nakaoku.

So far, the attacks have not caused any injuries or major damage to the vessels, he said, but the protesters are throwing rancid butter in bottles and once the protesters got a rope entangled in the propeller on a harpoon vessel, causing it to slow down.

"We have temporarily suspended our research whaling to ensure safety," he said. The fleet plans to resume hunting when conditions are deemed safe, he added, but declined to say how long the suspension will last.

The Sea Shepherd group has been shadowing Japan's whaling fleet for several years, and its campaign has drawn high-profile donor support in the United States and elsewhere and spawned the popular Animal Planet series "Whale Wars."

Last year, one of the group's boats sank after colliding with a Japanese vessel. The boat's captain, New Zealander Peter Bethune, was later arrested when he boarded a whaling ship from a Jet Ski, and was brought back to Japan for trial. He was convicted of assault, vandalism and three other charges and given a suspended prison term. Bethune has since returned to New Zealand.

Japan's fisheries agency has called Sea Shepherd a terrorist group for its militant actions.

The whale hunts, which Japan says are for scientific purposes, are allowed by the International Whaling Commission as an exception to the 1986 ban, but opponents say they are a cover for commercial whaling because whale meat not used for study is sold for consumption in Japan.

Nakaoku said the anti-whaling ships have been chasing the Japanese fleet right behind the lead whaling ship, Nisshin Maru.

"It's extremely regrettable that our research activity has been obstructed by the acts of sabotage, which could lead to serious injuries or damage," Nakaoku said. "We hope to return to normal operation as soon as possible."

The Japanese fleet left Japan late last year, and its ongoing expedition is planned for several more weeks.

Japan has failed to fulfill its catch quota in recent years due to escalating protests by the anti-whaling campaigners. Last year, Japanese whalers ended up catching only about half of their target number.

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-- Mari Yamaguchi, Associated Press

Photo: The Japanese whaling ship Nisshin Maru arrives in the Tokyo in April 2010, its hull stained by red marks left by Sea Shepherd whaling protesters. Credit: Jiji Press / AFP/Getty Images

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