CANBERRA Anti-whaling protesters stopped shadowing Japan's whaling fleet on Tuesday after a series of heated clashes in the Southern Ocean, saying they had saved more than 500 whales from being harpooned.
The hardline Sea Shepherd organization, which angered Japan with its harassment of Japanese whaling ships, said its protest ship the Steve Irwin was running out of fuel and had no choice but to return to port in Australia.
"We have just enough fuel to make it back to port. We've done everything we can do down here for this season," the group's leader Paul Watson said in a statement.
Japan's Institute of Cetacean Research labeled the Sea Shepherd group as "terrorists" after a series of heated clashes in the Southern Ocean aimed at disrupting the annual whale hunt.
In January, two Sea Shepherd protesters climbed aboard whaling ship the Yushin Maru No.2 and were held for two days before being released, while Sea Shepherd crews hurled stink bombs at Japan's whaling factory ship in March.
Last week, Watson said he had been struck by a bullet fired from coast guard officers on the Japanese factory ship the Nisshin Maru, but said he survived because he had been wearing a bullet-proof vest.
Japanese authorities denied the claim, saying the bullet was part of a light bulb from a clock on the Nisshin Maru's deck, and the coast guard officers only fired flash grenades, which are used for crowd control and are not considered weapons.
Watson said the protests had stopped Japan from catching whales for five and half weeks, or half of the whaling season which ends in less than two weeks, with the Sea Shepherd chasing the whale fleet for more than 3,500 nautical miles.
The clashes between the whale fleet and protesters led to a spate of diplomatic complaints between Tokyo and Canberra, with the Australian government strongly opposed to whaling but urging both sides to show restraint.
Japan, which considers whaling a cultural tradition, abandoned commercial whaling after agreeing to an international moratorium in 1986, but began what it calls a scientific research whaling program the following year.
It planned to kill nearly 1,000 whales during the Antarctic summer.
But Australia and the Sea Shepherd say the scientific whaling is a sham, used by Japan as a cover for commercial whaling.
Australia has promised to try to stop Japan's whaling, and is considering international legal action to try to stop the program, but the two countries have agreed not to let the issue hurt bilateral ties.
Australia's Environment Minister Peter Garrett on Tuesday said Australian had asked the International Whaling Commission to close the loophole that allows scientific whaling, and to assess all scientific research involving whaling.
(Editing by Jerry Norton)