(Recasts with quotes from Sea Shepherd founder)
SYDNEY, Dec 20 A hardline environmentalist group chasing Japanese whalers near Antarctica said on Saturday it would do its utmost to disrupt the hunt although bad weather had thwarted a stink bomb attack on one vessel.
Paul Watson, founder of Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, told Reuters by telephone that the group's ship, the Steve Irwin, would keep pursuing the whalers once the weather improved.
"They are on the run but right now it is very bad weather," he said from the Steve Irwin, adding it was the earliest in the whaling season his group had ever found the Japanese fleet.
"That means we are going to cut into their profits. When they are running they are not killing whales."
Japan's whaling fleet is in the Antarctic region for an annual hunt aimed at catching about 900 whales, which Tokyo says is carried out for scientific research purposes.
Japan officially stopped whaling under a 1986 global moratorium, but continues to take hundreds of whales under the research programme. Much of the meat ends up on dinner tables.
Watson said Sea Shepherd found the Japanese fleet in the morning Australian time in Canberra's declared economic exclusion zone, but close to France's Antarctic waters. The group had spotted two ships, one using Sea Shepherd's helicopter, but six Japanese ships were in the area.
Although Sea Shepherd members had not seen any whales killed, Watson said he believed the Japanese had already killed some whales.
Detailing the morning's events in a statement, Sea Shepherd said an attempt to attack the harpoon ship Yushin Maru 2 occurred in dense fog and icy seas at 2345 GMT Friday. It was called off about three miles (five kilometres) from the ship.
Last year the same two ships were involved in a tense standoff when Sea Shepherd members were held aboard the Japanese ship after an incident. Sea Shepherd said this year the ship appeared to have deployed a type of net this year in a bid to thwart its attacks.
"The encounter took place in dense fog and in dangerous ice conditions," the statement said. "The Steve Irwin launched a Delta boat with a crew to attack the Yushin Maru 2 with rotten butter bombs.
"Unfortunately the wind increased to 50 knots with blizzard conditions. Captain Paul Watson called the small boat crew back for safety reasons when they were halfway to their target some three miles away."
Sea Shepherd is headquartered in the United States. Watson was an early member of environmental group Greenpeace but later split from the organisation.