Japanese whalers have officially called off their annual Antarctic whale hunt following a devastating fire aboard the fleet's mother ship. Japan's Institute for Cetacean Research (ICR) has released a statement saying the whaling ships were on their way home early.
The ICR's Glenn Inwood would not confirm whether Japan had completed its kill quota of 935 minke and 10 endangered fin whales. It had been expected the fleet would be forced back to Japan following the fire aboard the factory ship Nisshin Maru on February 15. The official announcement said that "The Institute of Cetacean Research, in conjunction with Kyodo Senpaku and the Government of Japan had decided to cut short the Antarctic whale research program for the 2006/2007 austral summer season as a result of a fire aboard the research mother vessel, the Nisshin Maru". ICR Director General, Dr Hiroshi Hatanaka said that after completing a thorough assessment of the Nisshin Maru following the 15 February fire, it was concluded that some of the research equipment could not be recovered, and hence the ICR could not responsibly pursue the research activities as originally planned. However "far from an embarrassment, the situation in the Antarctic was an unfortunate event that no-one could have predicted. Our thanks go out to the crew who are very able seamen and responded in a professional and responsible manner to the fire and subsequent repairs to the vessel. Their skills and experience must be applauded" Dr Hatanaka said. Crewman Kazutaka Makita, 27, died in the blaze that also knocked out power to the whaling vessel for nine days. The blaze sparked concerns from green groups and New Zealand's Conservation Minister Chris Carter that the ship, reportedly carrying 1.3 million liters of fuel oil, could have caused an environmental catastrophe in the pristine Antarctic waters. The fire sparked a call from the WWF conservation group for sweeping protections for Antarctica's Ross Sea. WWF said the Nisshin Maru incident and another in which a Norwegian cruise ship ran aground and damaged its hull near Antarctica's Deception Island, spilling up to 750 liters of diesel into the ocean, highlighted the need for international action. "The Ross Sea is a physically and ecologically unique part of the Southern Ocean and home to many species including the world's largest invertebrate - the 450kg colossal squid," Constance Johnson, the leader of WWF's Antarctic programme, said in a statement. Japan's annual whale hunt, which it insists is for scientific purposes, normally continues until late March. However the meat ends up in Japanese restaurants and on supermarket shelves. "Upon returning to Japan, the Nisshin Maru will undergo inspection to investigate the cause of the fire, after which it will enter dock for a thorough refurbishment and preparation for Japan's Research Program in the western North Pacific (JARPN II), this year", added the official release. Japan's Program in the Antarctic (JARPA II) is a long-term research program and "will resume again in December this year". The hunt has come under growing pressure from environmental groups, who say it is cruel and violates a 1986 global ban on commercial whaling.