Japan's coast guard said Tuesday it has sent a team of officers to protect its whaling fleet against intensifying protests by environmentalists. The whalers have repeatedly clashed with environmentalists in Antarctic waters and halted the hunt two weeks ago.
"Coast guards are there with a view to protect human lives and assets as they have suffered damage at the hands of activists," Japan Coast Guard spokesman Takashi Matsumori said. The last time the maritime police sent officers to a non-Coast Guard vessel outside Japanese waters was in 1992 when it protected a ship controversially bringing plutonium from France for nuclear power generation. The whaling mission left a Japanese port in November. The Mainichi Shimbun daily said the guards departed later on a supply ship and joined the mission in December. The Fisheries Agency requested Coast Guard protection as it was alarmed by militant environmentalists who hurled stink bombs at the whaling fleet in February 2006 during the previous mission, the Mainichi said. Japan kills some 1,000 whales a year using a loophole in a 1986 global whaling moratorium that allows "lethal (scientific) research" on the giant mammals. Japan makes no secret that the meat ends up on dinner plates and accuses Western countries of disrespecting its culture. Only Norway and Iceland defy the moratorium on commercial whaling outright. Matsumori declined to give details about the current Coast Guard operation, citing security reasons, but said officers had the right to carry guns or other weapons. The guards "could make arrests if activists enter a ship without permission of the captain," he said. Activists of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society again threw stink bombs this month. Two of Sea Shepherd members, a Briton and an Australian, boarded a harpoon vessel, sparking a two-day standoff that was only resolved after Australia picked up the pair. Matsumori said the Coast Guard had not been able to take action on that occasion because the officers were on a different ship which was not nearby. Sea Shepherd said Monday it would return to shore as it was running out of fuel, paving the way for Japan to resume killing whales.