An Australian customs ship was steaming full speed toward a Japanese whaling vessel to pick up three activists after Tokyo decided yesterday to release them without charges over their surprise boarding off southwest Australia.
Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard said the customs ship would likely take several days of traveling at top speed to rendezvous with the security ship the Shonan Maru No. 2 to pick up the three Australians — Geoffrey Owen Tuxworth, 47, Simon Peterffy, 44, and Glen Pendlebury, 27 — in the Antarctic Ocean. All are from the state of Western Australia.
The three anti-whaling activists boarded the Shonan Maru No. 2 on Sunday as it tailed the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society’s flagship, the Steve Irwin.
Gillard thanked Japan for its cooperation and said the boarding tactic was “unacceptable and will ultimately be costly to the Australian taxpayer.”
Australia maintains that the annual whale hunts violate Japan’s international obligations and is seeking a ruling by the International Court of Justice in the Hague.
The whale hunts, which Japan says are for scientific purposes, are allowed by the International Whaling Commission as an exception to the 1986 ban on whaling. However, opponents say they are a cover for commercial whaling because whale meat not used for study is sold for consumption in Japan.
Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary Osamu Fujimura said his government had decided to treat the activists’ protest action as separate from US-based Sea Shepherd’s anti-whaling campaign. Japan decries Sea Shepherd as a terrorist group that risks lives through tactics used to obstruct the whaling fleet.
Japanese officials say the three were not armed, unlike Sea Shepherd activist Pete Bethune, who boarded the same ship in 2010 carrying a knife.
Bethune, a New Zealander, spent five months in a Japanese jail before being convicted of an array of offenses and deported.
Gillard said the Japanese government had been told the Shonan Maru No. 2 “was not welcome” within Australia’s exclusive economic zone before the three activists boarded it in Australian waters.
The trio, who are members of an environmental group focused on protecting forests from logging, said they were helping Sea Shepherd “end illegal whale poaching.”
Sea Shepherd founder Paul Watson, captain of the Steve Irwin, welcomed their impending freedom. However, he said the Steve Irwin would not slow down for the customs vessel as it tried to shake off the Shonan Maru No. 2 — a former harpoon boat that now performs a security role for the Japanese whaling fleet.