CANBERRA Anti-whaling activists are prepared to end aggressive protests against Japan's scientific whale cull if Australia or New Zealand agree to challenge the hunt in an international court, protesters said on Wednesday.
The Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, blamed for collisions with the Japanese Antarctic whaling fleet in recent years, as well as high-seas boardings and stink bomb attacks, said it was willing to "back off" for a season if either country acted.
"Take them to court, and if that fails, if the Japanese refuse to appear, if they refuse to abide by any legal decision, Sea Shepherd could then return with a much more aggressive approach," captain Paul Watson said in a statement.
Watson's flagship Steve Irwin docked in the Australian island of Tasmania at the weekend to refuel and the crew planned to head back to the Southern Ocean later on Wednesday, remaining there until March to harass the Japanese fleet.
Australia's center-left government last year sent a customs patrol ship to Antarctica to gather photo evidence of the Japanese cull to use in a possible International Court of Justice challenge, sparking diplomatic protests from Tokyo.
While Environment Minister Peter Garrett says the government is keeping open the option of court action, it has sought a diplomatic solution to avoid damaging its $35 billion trade relationship with Japan.
Garrett's office did not comment on Watson's offer.
Don Rothwell, an international law expert at the Australian National University, said this week Australia would have a "very strong, arguable case" that Japan's scientific cull breached a bar on commercial whaling in Antarctic waters.
Canberra could also argue that under the Antarctic Treaty protecting the continent, whaling posed an unacceptable environmental risk through refueling at sea and the disposal of whale offal, Rothwell said.
In New Zealand, a government spokesman told the NZPA news agency that foreign ministry officials were looking into whether a legal challenge was possible and were preparing advice for Foreign Affairs Minister Murray McCully.
Japan's whaling fleet is in the Antarctic region for an annual hunt aimed at catching about 900 whales.
Although Japan officially stopped whaling under a 1986 global moratorium, it continues to take hundreds of whales under a loophole allowing whaling for research purposes.
Much of the meat ends up on supermarket shelves and dinner tables.
(Reporting by Rob Taylor; Editing by David Fox)