CANBERRA (Reuters) - Anti-whaling activists accused Japanese whalers of ramming and sinking a high-tech protest boat in the frigid Southern Ocean on Wednesday, but Japan said that its ship could not avoid the collision.
The Australian government called for restraint by all parties after the hardline Sea Shepherd Conservation Society said its futuristic powerboat Ady Gil was cut in half by the Japanese security ship Shonan Maru No. 2.
All six crew were rescued, but the collision left one activist with two broken ribs and the A$1.5 million ($1.37 million) carbon-fiber trimaran was sinking, Sea Shepherd said.
“We believe it was deliberate. Our ship had come to a complete stop and they basically came straight down on top of them. They cleaned them up,” the group’s Australian director Jeff Hansen told Reuters.
Japan’s Fisheries Agency said the collision took place when Ady Gil suddenly slowed down as it crossed in front of Shonan Maru, which had warned the boat of impending danger.
Ady Gil did not send a distress signal and did not appear to be sinking, the Agency said, adding that Shonan Maru did not suffer major damage and its crew were safe.
“The series of obstructing activities by SS (Sea Shepherd) are dangerous acts that threaten the vessels engaged in scientific whaling as well as the lives and properties of the crew and they cannot be forgiven,” it said.
Commercial whaling was banned under a 1986 treaty, but Japan continues to cull whales saying it is for research purposes, deflecting criticism from anti-whaling nations.
Australia’s government called for calm in the Southern Ocean and said it would not be sending a patrol boat to the area.
“The point I would make is that the risk of accident is high and the capacity for rescue in these areas is low and it is absolutely critical that restraint be prudently exercised by all parties,” Environment Minister Peter Garrett told reporters.
Environmentalists accuse center-left Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd of backpedaling on threats of an International Court of Justice whaling challenge to avoid damaging Australia’s trade ties with Japan and slow-moving talks on a free trade pact.
Japan was Australia’s top export destination in 2008, with two-way trade worth $58 billion. Canberra also maintained a $25 billion trade surplus on the back of coal and iron ore exports.
Some legal experts believe the cull violates international law. A court challenge would lead to so-called provisional orders for Japan to halt whaling ahead of a full hearing.
A public relations company based in New Zealand and linked to Japan’s Institute of Cetacean Research chartered aircraft in Hobart and in Western Australia state last month to track the Sea Shepherd flagship “Steve Irwin,” the Age newspaper said.
“Instead of Australia sending a surveillance vessel to watch the whalers, the Japanese are using Australian soil to watch the whale defenders,” said Australian Greens Leader Bob Brown, whose party wields five key swing votes needed by the government.
Legal expert Don Rothwell of Australian National University said the flights had broken no laws and overreaction could expose the government to accusations of breaching its Southern Ocean policing responsibilities.
Japan says whaling is a cultural tradition and while most Japanese do not eat whale meat regularly, many are indifferent to accusations that the hunting is cruel.
($1=1.095 Australian Dollar)
Additional reporting by Yoko Kubota in TOKYO; Editing by Ron Popeski and Alex Richardson