Japan wants anti-whaling ship barred

January 7, 2009 6:09:39 AM PST
Radical conservationists who have been chasing Japanese whalers in the Antarctic Ocean said Wednesday they were heading to Australia to refuel their ship, a day after Japan argued they were pirates who should be barred from refueling.

Renegade activist Paul Watson, captain of the Sea Shepherd's ship, said he doubted Australia would block his boat - the Steve Irwin - when it lands in Hobart, Tasmania, sometime next week. Japan said Tuesday it plans to ask Australia to bar the ship from its ports, though Australian officials said they have received no formal request.

Protesters aboard the ship, named after the late Australian conservationist and TV personality Steve Irwin, have chased Japan's whaling fleet for 2,000 miles (3,200 kilometers) and last month lobbed bottles of rancid butter at the whalers. They are currently about 2,500 miles (4,000 kilometers) southeast of Hobart.

"I can't see Australia banning a ship called the 'Steve Irwin,"' Watson told The Associated Press by satellite phone. "Japan is being extremely arrogant in making such a demand."

On Tuesday, Japan - which has described the protesters as terrorists - said it would ask countries where the ship might make port calls to refuse it entry.

"They have obstructed our activities in the past, and their action is extremely dangerous," Foreign Ministry official Chiharu Tsuruoka said. "They are like pirates."

Watson noted that the Steve Irwin has used Australian ports for several years in its expeditions, and set sail for its current voyage from the Australian east coast city of Brisbane last month.

In a statement, Acting Prime Minister Julia Gillard said Australia has not received a request from Sea Shepherd to refuel in Hobart, but noted that the Steve Irwin has previously used Australian ports.

"Any decision on access to Australian ports by the Steve Irwin, or any other vessel, will be made in accordance with usual procedures and relevant international and domestic law," said Gillard, who is filling in for Prime Minister Kevin Rudd while he is on vacation.

Japan has temporarily suspended its whale hunt in Antarctic waters after a crewman apparently fell overboard Monday from one of the vessels in the six-ship whaling fleet. The accident was not believed related to the Sea Shepherd protests.

Watson said he and his crew have offered to assist the Japanese in their hunt for the missing man, despite accusations from the whalers that the conservationists have been harassing them during the search.

"We have the audio recording in Japanese and English where we specifically say 'we're not here to harass you, we're here to assist,"' Watson said. "And their response was they didn't want any assistance from an eco-terrorist organization."

Glenn Inwood, the New Zealand-based spokesman for Japan's Institute of Cetacean Research - a Japanese government-affiliated organization that oversees the hunt - described Watson's offer of assistance as insincere, noting that a crew from Animal Planet's popular program "Whale Wars" is on board chronicling the drama.

"I don't believe he had any intention of offering help," Inwood said. "I believe it was all a stunt for Whale Wars."

The Japanese fleet plans to harvest up to 935 minke whales and 50 fin whales this year. Under International Whaling Commission rules, the mammals may be killed for research but not for commercial purposes.

Opponents say the Japanese research expeditions are a cover for commercial whaling, which was banned in 1986.