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Julian Ryall, TokyoNovember 23, 2012

As Japan's whaling fleet prepares to put to sea for its annual operations in the Antarctic Ocean, its arch foes from the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society are waiting just over the horizon.

A minke whale harpooned through the head by a Japanese fleet, according to Greenpeace, in the Southern Ocean in 2006
Image: AP/Greenpeace

The Japanese government confirmed in early November that its whaling fleet would once again leave port in early December to carry out what Japan claims is "research whaling" in the icy waters of the Antarctic.

However, the exact date the vessels will slip their moorings, and the areas in which they will operate, are being kept a closely guarded secret.

And for good reason. Criticized around the world as thinly disguised commercial whaling - in large part because hundreds of whales are slaughtered and the meat ends up being served in Japanese schools and restaurants - the cull is fiercely opposed by environmental groups.

Japanese whalers cut open a Baird's beaked whale, their first catch of the season, which was caught some 60 kilometers (38 miles) off the coast, in Wada, southeast of Tokyo, Sunday morning June 21, 2009. The whaling firm of Gaibo Hogei Corporation Ltd., is one of eight coastal whaling operations in Japan that hunt Beard's Beaked and Pilot whales, species not subject to the International Whaling Commission's 1986 ban on commercial whaling. The catch, measuring more than 10 meters in length, comes a week before the International Whaling Commission (IWC) are due to meet in Madeira, Portugal. (AP Photo/Shuji Kajiyama)
Japan refuses to stop whaling, saying it is a long, cultural traditionImage: AP

Of all the anti-whaling activists, none is more outspoken - or confrontational - than the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, which has harassed the Japanese fleet every year since 2005.

This year, the group has vowed for the first time to take the battle to protect the whales into Japanese territorial waters.

Sea Shepherd's team of vessels, crewed by 110 volunteers from around the world, is heading North through the Pacific, and the organization has set itself the target of not permitting the whalers to catch a single "specimen" this season.

Confrontation off Japan

"The plan is for our fleet to be meeting their fleet in the North Pacific off Japan," said Peter Hammarstedt, deputy leader of Sea Shepherd, in a statement. "We are planning to take the battle pretty much up to Japan itself."

Baird?s beaked whale raw meat is served at a restaurant near Wada, in Chiba Prefecture, Japan, 30 July 2009. Apart from the controversial scientific hunt in Antartica, a few whaling ports continue their activities within a limited number of annual catches. Dating back from the 16th century, coastal whaling is a tradition in Japan and Wada is one of the last ports where fishermen hunt in the Japanese waters for the Baird?s beaked whale as it is not restricted by the IWC (International Whaling Commission). Within the ten-weeks-long whaling season ending 31 August, fishermen in Wada are allowed to catch up to 26 whales, a small figure compared to the hundreds killed for the scientific hunt. EPA/FRANCK ROBICHON +++(c) dpa - Report+++ ### Verwendung nur in Deutschland, usage Germany only ###
Japan claims whaling is for scientific purposes, but most of the meat is sold commerciallyImage: picture-alliance/dpa

"The goal for us is to have a zero-kill quota of whales," he added. "If we can get to the Japanese fleet early, hopefully they will cut their losses."

Whaling in Japan can trace its roots to small-scale coastal operations as far back as the 12th century, but the industry was ramped up in the 20th century as it sought to feed a burgeoning population with limited domestic food resources.

Japan opposed a moratorium on commercial operations imposed by the International Whaling Commission in 1986 and has since used a loophole in the rules that permits scientific research to harpoon hundreds of whales every year.

Since 1988, Japanese whalers have caught more than 14,200 whales, the majority being minke whales, but also including fin, sperm, sei and Brydes whales.

A whale leaps out of the water in what is called breaching in the channel off the town of Lahaina on the island of Maui in Hawaii, USA, in this Jan. 23, 2005 file picture. A slim majority of nations on the International Whaling Commission voted Sunday, June 18, 2006 in support of a resumption of commercial whaling, but pro-whaling nations still lack the numbers needed to overturn a 20-year-old ban. The resolution, approved 33-32 with one abstention, declares that the moratorium on commercial whaling was meant to be temporary and is no longer needed. (AP Photo/Reed Saxon)
Whales are an endangered species and should not be hunted at all, environmentalists say.Image: AP

Japan defends its continued program by insisting that there are sufficient stocks of whales in the world's oceans and that whaling is a Japanese cultural practice that foreign countries should not interfere with. Japanese commentators have also suggested that opposition is rooted in covert racism.

Japan's research on whales is carried out under the auspices of the Institute of Cetacean Research, a privately owned, non-profit organization. The ICR did not respond to telephone and e-mail requests for comments on the whaling fleet's planned operations this season. Sea Shepherd, however, has been a lot more forthcoming about its plans.


Describing themselves as "eco-pirates," the organization has launched what it says is the biggest and most aggressive mission ever to stop the slaughter of whales.

In this June 2, 2011 photo taken off Toulon, France, and provided by the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, their scout vessel Brigitte Bardot cuts through the water. The Brigitte Bardot was seriously damaged by a giant wave Thursday, Dec. 29, 2011 in Antarctic Sea, a major setback in the group's ongoing and sometimes violent battle with Japan's whaling fleet. (AP Photo/Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, Michelle McCarron) EDITORIAL USE ONLY
One of Sea Shepherd's trimarans was rammed in 2011 by Japanese fishing vesselsImage: AP

The three-strong fleet is led by the SSS Steve Irwin, named after the late Australian wildlife expert nicknamed "The Crocodile Hunter." The faster SSS Bob Barker is designed to locate the Japanese ships, while the SSS Brigitte Bardot is a technologically advanced vessel that in 1998 circumnavigated the world in just 74 days and is now used as a scouting ship.

Sea Shepherd is also deploying a new ship, the SSS Sam Simon, although its duties and capabilities are shrouded in secrecy.

This year's campaign - named Operation Zero Tolerance - is likely to bring the whalers and environmentalists into confrontation long before they reach the Antarctic Ocean. The aim is improve on last year's campaign and avoid ships from the Japanese Coast Guard, which are expected to once again accompany the whalers.

In that effort, the Japanese were only able to catch 26 percent of their quota for the year, after environmentalists hurled bottles of reeking butyric acid, which smells like rancid butter fat, onto the decks of the whaling ship and the whalers retaliated with water cannons.

Paul Watson, founder and President of the animal rights and environmental group Sea Shepherd Conservation takes part in a demonstration against the Costa Rican government near Germany's Presidental residence during a visit of Costa Rica's president Laura Chinchilla in Berlin, Germany. Japan had asked Germany to arrest Paul Watson, the founder of environmental group Sea Shepherd, days before he skipped bail and apparently fled the country. The Japanese embassy in Berlin confirmed in a statement to The Associated Press on Thursday July 26, 2012 that it submitted its request to German authorities July 19. Three days later Watson - who was free on 250,000 euro (US $320,000) bail in Germany pending a separate extradition request from Costa Rica _ last reported to authorities. Watson and his group have repeatedly clashed with fishing fleets they accuse of illegally hunting whales, sharks and other endangered sea animals. (Foto:Markus Schreiber, File/AP/dapd)
Too many whales are still killed, says Sea Shepherd's founderImage: dapd

Still, Captain Paul Watson, who founded Sea Shepherd in 1981, said the 267 whales that were culled is "267 too many." And this year, the environmental group believes it holds the whip hand.

In the words of Sea Shepherd deputy leader, Peter Hammarstedt: "We have never been stronger and the Japanese whalers have never been weaker."

"We need to take advantage of our strengths and their weaknesses, and we need to bring this campaign home to Japan," Hammarstedt said.