Japan's Research Whalers Head Home Early

TOKYO—Japan officially called an early halt to this year's research whaling expedition to Antarctic waters, blaming the activist group Sea Shepherd Conservation Society for making it impossible to continue. "From the standpoint of securing the lives of the crew and the safety of property and the ships, halting the investigation is unavoidable," Michihiko Kano, Japan's agriculture minister, said at a press briefing here this morning. Shortly thereafter, Sea Shepherd declared it "Victory in the Southern Ocean Day" for whales.

Speaking in Tokyo last December, Sea Shepherd's Scott West said the group's objective in using speedboats to harass Japan's whaling ships was to "sink that fleet economically" by making it too costly to accomplish its mission. This is the seventh consecutive year Sea Shepherd has chased Japan's whalers through the southern oceans and, in terms of reducing the number of whales taken, possibly the most successful. Japanese media reported that the fleet captured only 172 whales, far short of the target of 900.

There has been an international moratorium on commercial whaling since 1985, but Japan relies on a clause that allows whales to be taken for research to catch hundreds of minke and smaller numbers of other species each year. After researchers take samples to determine the whale's age, stomach contents, the amount of heavy metals accumulated in tissue, and other data, the meat is sold with proceeds subsidizing the whaling expeditions. Critics contend the data could be collected through non-lethal means.

Japan's Institute of Cetacean Research, which conducts the annual hunts, has documented on its Web page what it calls Sea Shepherd's "illegal harassment and terrorism" over the past 6 weeks.

The International Whaling Commission (IWC), which oversees the commercial whaling moratorium, last year floated a proposal to close the research loophole but allow Japan, Norway, and Iceland to hunt a limited number of whales. But at the annual IWC meeting in Agadir, Morocco, last June, action on the plan was deferred for a year to allow the heated debate to cool down.