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Japan scrubs Antarctic whale hunt

Final tally: 508 whales, 1 crew member

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Japan's Antarctic whaling fleet has called it a day for this season following the recent fire aboard its main vessel the Nisshin Maru, Reuters reports.

The ship suffered an engine room fire earlier this month which forced a partial evacuation of the crew. One crew member died during the incident.

Although the 8,000-ton Nisshin Maru's engines were restarted over the weekend, Japan's Fisheries Agency said today that "given the damage to equipment from the fire, continuing whaling would be difficult".

Agency official Takahide Naruko told a press conference in Tokyo: "We have been research whaling for 20 years, but this is the first time we have had to cut the expedition short. It is very unfortunate."

He added that the reduced tally of whales - 505 minke whales and 3 fin whales since November last year, as opposed to target figures of 850 and 10, respectively - wouldn't have "a major effect on the price of whale meat".

That's not an end to the matter, however. The Institute of Cetacean Research, a "partly government-funded body that oversees the whaling programme", today published a "letter of protest" against environmental activist organisation Sea Shepherd.

The letter slams Sea Shepherd's persistent harassment of the whaling fleet as "spiteful and mindless terrorism". The ecowarriors rammed Japanese vessels, "threw harmful chemical substances and smoke bombs and released ropes and nets to try to jam the ships' propellers", according to the letter.

Regarding a possible link between Sea Shepherd's activities and the Nisshin Maru blaze, Naruko said: "We don't think there was any direct connection. On the other hand, we can't say for certain that there was none."

The Nisshin Maru is due back in Japan at the end of March, after which an investigation will determine the cause of the fire. Greenpeace, which has itself been shadowing the Japanese fleet in its ship the Esperanza, today confirmed the Japanese fleet had left Antarctic waters.

Greenpeace claims to have sent a radio message to the Nisshin Maru which declared: "We acknowledge your grief at the loss of your crew member. But this must be the last time your government sends you to the Southern Ocean to hunt whales and threaten the Antarctic environment. For the sake of the environment, the whales and your crew - never again!" ®

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