CANBERRA Australia's government is unlikely to send ships to monitor Japanese whaling in the Antarctic this season, lawmakers said Tuesday, after clashes with activists last year led to a diplomatic protest from Tokyo.
Canberra last year sent a customs and fisheries icebreaker to shadow anti-whaling activists and the Japanese fleet, gathering photo evidence of the yearly research hunt for a possible international legal case against Tokyo.
But after high-seas clashes between the whalers and activists in the frigid Southern Ocean, the brief detention of activists on a whale hunting ship and diplomatic protests from Japan, Environment Minister Peter Garrett would not promise a repeat.
"The Japanese whaling fleet is expected to launch within the next month, yet still the government refuses to take any active steps to prevent this annual slaughter," Australian Greens Senator Rachel Siewert told reporters.
Despite the moratorium on whaling, Japan is allowed an annual "scientific" hunt, arguing whaling is a cherished tradition and the hunt is necessary to study whales.
Japan's whaling fleet will leave for the Antarctic within weeks and intends to cull 850 minke and 50 fin whales in the Southern Ocean this season, Australian lawmakers said. Japan has yet to confirm the hunt target.
"I urge Minister Garrett to take action before we have to sit by and once again watch our endangered whale population slaughtered under the guise of Japanese "scientific research,"" Siewert said.
Seven out of the 13 great whale species are classed as endangered or vulnerable by environment group WWF, including fin whales. Japan last year retreated on a plan to hunt endangered humpback whales after international protests.
Garrett said this week Australia's center-left government had been clear about its opposition to Japanese scientific whaling and recently named an ambassador for whale conservation.
"Everything that we said that we would do in order to engage on this issue we have done and we'll continue strong diplomatic engagement in the mean time," Garrett said.
Environment watchdog Greenpeace has also decided not to send an anti-whaling ship south this year amid expectations Japan may send a coastguard ship with the fleet to ward off activists.
Greenpeace Australia-Pacific Chief Executive Steve Shallhorn said the watchdog wanted to oppose whaling at home in Japan, while two of its activists are to face a Japanese court next year on charges of stealing whale meat.
Japan's Coast Guard said it was unaware of plans for a ship to accompany the fleet, although Australia's Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade said Tokyo would not be in breach of anti-arms protocols covering the Antarctic.
The hardline Sea Shepherd conservation group, which led last year's campaign, launching stinkbombs and boarding a Japanese ship, said it would again disrupt the hunt and hoped to double its protest fleet this year to two ships.
"I don't care if they send the whole Japanese navy down there. We're not going to be intimidated," Sea Shepherd founder Captain Paul Watson said. Watson, in claims rejected by the Japanese, last year claimed to have been shot at from a whaler.
(Additional reporting by Isabel Reynolds in Tokyo, editing by Sanjeev Miglani)