Sea Shepherd activists clash with Japanese whalers in Southern Ocean

The Sea Shepherd Conservation Society closed out 2010 by locating the Japanese whaling fleet in the Southern Ocean, and began the new year by clashing with and engaging in pursuit of three harpoon vessels.

The season’s first confrontations reportedly involved near collisions, water cannon blasts by whaling crews and the hurling of stink bombs onto whaling boats by the activists.

Sea Shepherd located the harpoon ships Friday in the Southern Ocean, about 1,700 miles southeast of New Zealand. It marked the first time in seven campaigns it had found the fleet before the whalers had logged a kill, the group claimed. The encounter took place in Antarctic waters, where icebergs created a surreal setting and dangerous conditions.

Paul Watson, the group’s controversial captain and founder, said the whalers began shooting water cannons at the group’s inflatable harassment boat as he had been conducting interviews with the Associated Press. “They just turned their cannons on our Zodiac,” Watson told the AP. “Right at this moment.”

Locky MacLean, caption of Sea Shepherd’s speedy interceptor vessel Gojira, said in a statement that Saturday’s encounter was “both deadly and beautiful. Deadly because of the ice and the hostility of the whalers and beautiful because of the ice, and the fact that these killer ships are not killing ships but clashing with us.”

In a report on the Kyodo news agency, Japan’s Fisheries Agency called Sea Shepherd’s harassment tactics “obstructive behavior against legitimate research activities” and added that the “dangerous action threatens the vessels and the lives and property of their crew members.”

Japan’s Institute of Cetacean Research, which runs the hunts, described Saturday’s attack on the Yushin Maru No. 3 on its website: “Activists on board Zodiac boats sent from the Steve Irwin and the Bob Barker approached the Japanese vessel and deployed ropes with buoys aimed at the propeller and rudder of the Yushin Maru No. 3. They threw several glass bottle projectiles against the Yushin Maru No. 3.”

Japan conducts whaling missions annually in the Southern Ocean despite a ban on commercial whaling, imposed in 1986 by the International Whaling Commission. It targets an annual quota of more than 900 minke whales and uses a “lethal research” loophole in the wording of the ban to justify its hunts.

Whale meat from the hunts is sold commercially throughout Japan, though demand reportedly has been shrinking and stockpiles of frozen whale meat are increasing. The Fisheries Agency oversees the Institute of Cetacean Research, which manages the hunts. Many outsiders have questioned the validity of the research and the need to kill so many whales for research.

Earlier this week, the Fisheries Agency admitted that some of its officials had accepted gifts of more than $3,000 worth of whale meat from the research group. Agency spokesman Toyohiko Ota, in an ABC TV news report, apologized for a scandal that some perceive as undermining Japan’s claim that it hunts whales purely for science.

The environmental group Greenpeace,which helped expose the payoffs, claims the extent of the payoffs was much larger but is describing the public admission by the Fisheries Agency as “a great victory.”

Much of the whaling takes place in a region designated by the IWC as the Southern Ocean Whale Sanctuary, but Japan does not recognize the designation.The country, however, has fallen under growing outside pressure recently to curtail or end the hunts.

The confrontations, meanwhile, have become increasingly tense and last year a Sea Shepherd boat had to be scuttled after a collision with a whaling ship.

Earlier this month the governments of the United States, Australia, New Zealand and The Netherlands issued a joint statement condemning, in advance, any actions from either side “that imperil human life.”

This is the fourth season an Animal Planet film crew is with Sea Shepherd chronicling events for its popular “Whale Wars” series.

Watson said his group was able to find the whalers despite the vastness of the region by scattering the fleet of three boats at the start of the journey from New Zealand. The captain said Sea Shepherd’s goal during this campaign is to prevent a single whale from being killed.

— Photos show Sea Shepherd’s vessel, Steve Irwin, in pursuit of whaling ship (top), the crew of a whaling boat firing powerful water hoses (middle), and the scene in the icy Antarctic. Credit: Barbara Veiga / Sea Shepherd