Japanese whalers and activists are about to resume their battle in Antarctica

A Minke whale on the flensing deck of the whale factory ship, Nisshin Maru. Image: Sea Shepherd

The battle for the whales is about to be rejoined.

The scene is set for a cat and mouse, high stakes contest to be fought by activists against Japanese ships across the icy seas of the Southern Ocean this summer.

A Japan fleet of four vessels, including harpoon boats, is on the way to Antarctic waters to hunt whales again despite an international court ruling in 2014 that such missions are unlawful.

Sea Shepherd, the global activist group which uses its own ships as a type of eco-navy, hasn’t directly said it will tackle the Japan whalers again but it has a ship, Steve Irwin, being prepared in Melbourne.

The ship was being provisioned for the organisation’s second campaign to target illegal toothfish operators in the Southern Ocean.

While Sea Shepherd hasn’t said this directly, the ship could be diverted to track the whales and disrupt the hunt for Japan’s self-regulated quota of 330 minke whales.

“Sea Shepherd is an anti-poaching organisation,” says Alex Cornelissen, the captain of the Steve Irwin.

“If Sea Shepherd comes across criminal activity, then our history speaks for itself. We will, as always, directly intervene to prevent that crime from taking place.

“We would like to remind the Japanese government that the whales of the Southern Ocean are protected by international law, by Australian law and by Sea Shepherd. As such, any violation of the sanctity of the Southern Ocean Whale Sanctuary or the Australian Whale Sanctuary will be regarded as a criminal act.”

Previous campaigns by Sea Shepherd against Japan’s whaling saw collisions at sea, the boarding of a whale factory ship by activists, the sinking of one anti-whaling ship, the throwing of stink bombs and the dropping of propeller-fouling devices.

The Japanese Fisheries Agency on Saturday officially notified the International Whaling Commission that it planned to return to the waters of Antarctica to take whales again. Its ships left Japan yesterday.

Many thought the years of Japan’s so-called scientific whaling in the Antarctic had ended.

In March last year, the International Court of Justice ruled that Japan’s JARPA II research program was unlawful.

The 16-member judicial panel voted 12 to 4 in favour of Australia’s position that Japan was using “scientific whaling” to disguise commercial activity.

It also found that Japan had breached the Southern Whale Sanctuary established by the International Whaling Commission.

While there has been a ban on commercial whaling since 1986, Japan had maintained it was allowed to take whales for “scientific” purposes

Japan, which had said it would abide by the court’s ruling, then made plans to create another whaling program, called NEWREP-A (New Scientific Whale Research Program in the Antarctic Ocean), a planned 12-year hunt.

According to the Fisheries Agency of Japan, disruption by anti-whaling groups is expected and planned for.

Here’s footage of minke whales, the whales to be hunted this season, at the Great Barrier Reef:

Australia has objected to the latest whaling by Japan.

“We do not accept in any way, shape or form the concept of killing whales for so-called scientific research,” says environment minister Greg Hunt.

The Scientific Committee has not had the opportunity to review Japan’s plans.

Hunt says Japan’s decision to implement NEWREP-A before the International Whaling Commission’s review process is complete is a matter of concern. Japan cannot unilaterally decide whether it has adequately addressed the scientific committee’s questions.

“There is no need to kill whales in the name of research,” Hunt says. “Non lethal research techniques are the most effective and efficient method of studying all cetaceans.”

The Greens want Australia to send a ship to the Southern Ocean to collect evidence against whaling by Japan.

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