TOKYO - Japanese whalers have suspended their Antarctic hunt, citing harassment by environmentalists, and are considering ending their annual mission early, a fisheries agency official said Wednesday.
Activists from the U.S.-based militant environmental group the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society have pursued the Japanese fleet for months to stop its harpoon ships from killing the giant sea mammals.
Japanese Fisheries Agency official Tatsuya Nakaoku said the factory ship "the Nisshin Maru, which has been chased by Sea Shepherd, has suspended operations since February 10 so as to ensure the safety" of the crew.
"We are now studying the situation, including the possibility of cutting the mission early," he told AFP, confirming media reports, but stressed that "nothing has been decided at this point".
Prime Minister Naoto Kan's top spokesman, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano, confirmed the temporary suspension and said the "Sea Shepherd's repeated sabotage is extremely deplorable", Kyodo News reported.
The Jiji Press news agency said, without naming sources, that the government was considering calling the fleet home earlier than the usual end of the annual expeditions, which would be in mid-March.
Tokyo Broadcasting System (TBS) Television also said "the government is judging the situation so dangerous that it may cause casualties, and preparing to call back the fleet and ending the research whaling earlier than usual".
A TBS newscaster added: "If the government does call back the fleet it would mean giving in to anti-whaling activists, which would affect other research whaling missions. The government will have to make a difficult decision."
Sea Shepherd captain Paul Watson, speaking to AFP by satellite phone, gave a cautious welcome to the reports and confirmed that the Nisshin Maru was now sailing in waters far from the hunting area.
"If that's true then it demonstrates that our tactics, our strategies have been successful," Watson said from his ship, the Steve Irwin.
"I don't think they've gotten more than 30 whales ... certainly they haven't got many whales at all."
Sea Shepherd activists have harassed whalers in recent years, moving their ships and inflatable and speed boats between the harpoon vessels and the sea mammals, and throwing stink and paint bombs at the whaling ships.
Watson was reluctant to claim victory but said that "every whale saved is a victory to us, so we've gotten a lot of victories down here this year".
Another anti-whaling group, the U.S.-based International Fund for Animal Welfare, said it welcomed the reports, in emailed comments from Patrick Ramage, director of IFAW's Global Whale Programme.
"We hope this is a first sign of Japanese government decision-makers recognizing there is no future for whaling in the 21st century and that responsible whale watching, the only genuinely sustainable use of whales, is now the best way forward for a great nation like Japan," he said.
Japan kills hundreds of whales a year under a loophole in a 1986 moratorium on commercial whaling that allows "lethal research."
The government has long defended the practice as part of the island-nation's culture and makes no secret of the fact that the meat ends up in restaurants.
Anti-whaling nations, led by Australia and New Zealand, and environmental groups call the hunts cruel and unnecessary.
Greenpeace has long argued the state-financed whale hunts are a waste of taxpayers' money, producing excess stockpiles of whale meat.
Junichi Sato, an anti-whaling campaigner at Greenpeace, said the group had information that the fleet would indeed return home early because Japan is already burdened with excess stocks of whale meat.
"Given the excessive stockpiles, they are economically troubled," he told AFP, noting that the factory ship is not big enough to carry the hunt's target number of up to 1,000 whales.
"Harassment has been cited as the reason, but really this is about Japan's internal situation."
Image: Adam Lau / Sea Shepherd Conservation Society