CANBERRA Japanese whalers accused hardline anti-whaling activists on Wednesday of disrupting a search for a missing sailor believed to have drowned after toppling overboard in stormy and frigid seas close to Antarctica.
Japan's Institute of Cetacean Research and ship owner Kyodo Senpaku Kaisha said in a joint statement that Sea Shepherd activists took advantage of a distress signal to approach the fleet in darkness during a search for the sailor with lights off.
"Clearly, the Netherlands vessel made use of the distress call and came to disturb our search," ICR director-general Minoru Morimoto said, accusing Sea Shepherd's Dutch-registered flagship Steve Irwin of interfering with the search operation.
Hajime Shirasaki, a 30-year-old engine room oiler, was reported missing from the whale hunter Kyoshin Maru No. 2 early on Monday and is believed to have been washed overboard in heavy Southern Ocean seas with four meter (12 feet) swells.
Sea Shepherd founder Paul Watson told Reuters by satellite phone that he only offered to help with the search and had contacted search and rescue authorities in New Zealand to volunteer use of his ship's on-board helicopter.
"We approached them and radioed them and said very specifically that we were not there to harass them, but assist them. We have their response, that they did not want any assistance from an eco-terrorist organization," Watson said.
"I find it really, really unfair that they would make such an accusation," he said, adding that his ship had its lights on when he approached the Japanese fleet.
Japan's whaling fleet is in the Antarctic for an annual cull of close to 1,000 whales which it says is for "scientific" purposes and does not breach an international whaling ban.
Tokyo this week asked Australia's government to block the Steve Irwin from refuelling in the island state of Tasmania. The ship is due in the capital Hobart in the next few days.
Kyodo Senpaku Kaisha President Kazuo Yamamura said member countries of the International Whaling Commission, which enforces the worldwide ban, should take action against Sea Shepherd, which has repeatedly clashed with the whalers in recent years.
"This kind of behavior should be condemned for its lack of humanity, and all concerned countries should take the strongest measures against Sea Shepherd, in line with the IWC resolution on safety at sea ... to protect the security of our crews," he said.
Sea Shepherd activists chasing the Japanese fleet off Antarctica in December threw "stink" bombs at one vessel.
But Watson said his group had committed no crime.
"What we have are whalers operating illegally making a request to the Australian government that we should be barred for operating legally," he said.
Australian Greens Senator Bob Brown, whose party helps wield balance of power in the parliament's upper house, said the government should ignore Yamamura and instead bar whalers from Australian ports.
The Japanese fleet has not yet sought access to ports for supplies.
"Hobart will have a warm welcome for Paul Watson and his crew when they return," Brown said.
Japan officially stopped whaling under a 1986 global moratorium, but continues to cull hundreds of whales for research. Much of the meat ends up on dinner tables.
Though most Japanese do not eat whalemeat on a regular basis, many are indifferent to accusations that hunting the creatures is cruel, while others resent being told what they should eat.
(Editing by Sanjeev Miglani)