New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark warned Japanese whaling ships yesterday that surveillance photos of the fleet revealing their location would be published if they entered New Zealand's Antarctic waters.
Japan's six-ship whaling fleet has been trying to avoid anti-whaling protest ships in the Southern Ocean after protesters stopped whaling operations when two activists boarded a whaling ship and another group stopped a whaling ship refueling.
The fleet was heading toward New Zealand-controlled waters in Antarctica, in breach of an agreement that it would remain in Australian waters during this year's whale hunt, Conservation Minister Steve Chadwick said yesterday.
He said the fleet was photographed by a Royal New Zealand Air Force Orion airplane during a routine surveillance flight for illegal fishers in the southern oceans.
Chadwick said the whalers were heading toward the Ross Sea, an area for which New Zealand has international search and rescue responsibility.
After slaughtering whales in New Zealand's Antarctic waters last year, Japan had agreed under an International Whaling Commission protocol to hunt in Australian waters, Chadwick said.
"But it looks like they're heading into our territory down there -- very remote, very dangerous, very hostile territory," he told New Zealand's National Radio.
Last year's southern ocean whale hunt by Japan ended early after its whaling fleet factory ship, Nisshin Maru, was crippled by fire and one crew member killed in Ross Sea waters.
The fire left the ship drifting and without engine power for 10 days, prompting strong protests from New Zealand and from Greenpeace over potential oil and chemical spills or damage to nearby Antarctic penguin colonies.
Chadwick said it was not illegal for the Japanese ships to go into Ross Sea waters, but it would breach a protocol the whalers inked.
Clark said the presence of the fleet anywhere near New Zealand's search and rescue area was cause for "grave concern."
"It's an area that's very difficult to access. If there are problems, it's difficult to render assistance," she said.
"You don't quickly mount a voyage from the naval dockyard in Auckland to the far south of the Ross Sea. This is very, very awkward," she said.
Air force planes had been instructed to take photos of any Japanese whaling ships in their patrol area.
"We won't release coordinates for obvious safety-related reasons, but we will put information out to the world where we see the fleet," Clark said.
Glenn Inwood, a spokesman for the Tokyo-based Institute of Cetacean Research, which operates the whaling fleet, said he was unable to confirm where it was going.
Inwood said New Zealand "has no claim" on the Ross Sea area.
"We expect New Zealand to take a tough line in respect of protests by Sea Shepherd and Greenpeace" against the whalers, he said.