Anti-whaling group says closing in on Japan fleet

In this file photo workers butcher a Baird's Beaked whale at Wada port in Minamiboso, southeast of Tokyo, June 28, 2008. REUTERS/Toru Hanai

SYDNEY (Reuters) - A U.S.-based hardline anti-whaling group, seeking to disrupt Japanese whaling near Antarctica, said it had spotted the fleet and was closing in on it, raising the risk of a confrontation.

The Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, blamed for collisions with the Japanese fleet in recent years, said three ships had been spotted, including two harpoon vessels, which appeared to be engaged in hunting whales amid loose ice, fog and 40-knot winds.

“We are seven miles from the fleet and approaching. We see the Nisshin Maru and two harpoon vessels the Yushin Maru 1 and the Yushin Maru 2,” the group’s founder Paul Watson said in a statement.

Sea Shepherd’s Dutch-registered ship Steve Irwin returned to the Southern Ocean in late January after it was forced to head for Tasmania to refuel after several weeks at sea, pursuing the Japanese fleet.

“They appear to be whaling and are moving. As we approached closer they began to move full speed toward the open ocean. The Steve Irwin has engaged both engines and we are slowly closing the gap.”

Japan’s Institute of Cetacean Research, which runs the annual whale hunt, has accused Watson of “eco-terrorism,” an allegation which Watson rejects. Sea Shepherd has targeted Japanese vessels with stink bombs and used other methods to try to disrupt their activities.

The annual hunt is 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.

Watson’s confrontational tactics have been widely criticized both by pro-whaling groups and fellow environmentalists, although it has also attracted high-profile supporters.

Editing by Sanjeev Miglani