Japan has suspended its hunting of whales and is near to formally pulling out only halfway through the current season in Antartica. The economics of the whaling industry is declining in Japan, with key figures in the Fisheries Agency disgraced for allowing a black market in the meat. The shift has raised hopes that Japan may be moving to end the 23-year-old program, which has ended the lives of around 10,000 Antarctic whales. 

The International Fund for Animal Welfare said government sources in Japan had decided to cut short the season, and the fleet would head back to port.

”Under pressure from all fronts, the Japanese whaling fleet is apparently withdrawing early this season from the internationally recognised sanctuary around Antarctica,” said the fund’s global whales campaign director, Patrick Ramage.

”We hope this is a first sign of Japanese government decision-makers recognising there is no future for whaling in the 21st century and that responsible whale-watching, the only genuinely sustainable use of whales, is now the best way forward for a great nation like Japan.”

An official at the Fisheries Agency of Japan, Tatsuya Nakaoku, said in Tokyo yesterday that, putting safety first, the fleet had halted scientific whaling for now.

When asked if Japan was considering bringing back the fleet earlier than planned, Mr Nakaoku said this remained an option and added that Japan’s whaling plans were not going smoothly.

Greenpeace Japan’s director, Junichi Sato, added: ”When the government says it is ‘considering’ something, they have already decided.”

After being pursued by Sea Shepherd, the whalers have had their kills stopped at a time when finances are tight in Tokyo and international diplomatic pressure is rising. An unconvinced Sea Shepherd leader Paul Watson said he would not relax pressure on the factory ship, Nisshin Maru, which was around 2000 nautical miles from its whaling grounds, and still steaming away.

Nisshin Maru, closely pursued by the Sea Shepherd ship Bob Barker, was at last report running east near the Antarctic Peninsula, and approaching Drake Passage below South America. Captain Watson said he was still concerned Nisshin Maru might try to circumnavigate Antarctica and return to its whaling zone, far south-west of Western Australia. This year, a smaller whaling fleet came under sustained Sea Shepherd pressure, sharply reducing its capacity to catch a quota of up to 935 minke and 50 fin whales.

Meanwhile, the Chilean government said it planned to use naval assets to closely monitor the approaching factory ship. Chile has permanently banned whaling in its waters and forbids the transport of cetacean parts through them, but Nisshin Maru should be able to navigate Drake Passage without entering the Chilean zone.