Armed coast guard troops are stationed on Japanese whaling ships heading for the annual summer hunt in Antarctica, raising fears of potentially lethal clashes with protest vessels.
Foreign Affairs Minister Murray McCully is appealing for restraint from both sides as they shape up for what have in recent years become increasingly violent battles over Japan's Southern Ocean whaling programme.
McCully said the Japanese whalers were carrying armed coast guard officers for the first time in three years, an apparent response to the boarding of one of the hunt ships by Sea Shepherd activist Pete Bethune after the sinking of his protest boat Ady Gil last summer.
McCully said the presence of coastguard personnel and the obvious "robust'' tactics planned by the Sea Shepherd fleet, believed to number three ships, made for a potentially lethal mix.
"I've made it very clear I'm apprehensive about the situation in the Southern Ocean. We've now got reports that there are armed coast guard personnel on the Japanese whaling vessels.
"Here you have a pretty explosive cocktail. You've got some Japanese whalers going down there feeling somewhat angry about the developments last year when there was accusations being made about the conduct of other parties. You've got protesters going down there saying they're going to take a very robust approach.
"Anyone who looks at what happened last year has got to be fearful that there will be loss of human life under those circumstances, and again I take the opportunity of appealing to both parties to adhere to the law of the sea and to make sure they show the regard they're obliged to show for the safety of other human beings in the region.''
He said the Government had no plans at this stage to send a naval ship to monitor the hunt. There had been talk of sending one of the new offshore patrol ships, but Mr McCully said they had yet to complete sea trials, due to end in March.
He was speaking after an announcement that New Zealand would not join an Australian case to take Japan to the International Court of Justice over its whaling programme, though New Zealand will have ``intervening'' rights, meaning it can make oral and written submissions.
McCully said New Zealand had decided to stay out of the court case after it was advised that Australia would then lose the right to appoint a judge to the hearing. New Zealand already has a judge on the ICJ, Sir Kenneth Keith.
McCully said staying out of the court case would also allow New Zealand to continue pursuing diplomatic channels to end Southern Ocean whaling, something Australia could not do while it was suing Japan.
"New Zealand is very keen to pursue any discussion that's going to see the elimination of whaling in the Southern Ocean. I've made it very clear that I'm an optimist about that. It simply doesn't make any economic sense for Japan to continue to spend large amounts of taxpayers' money subsidising a dying industry in the Southern Ocean.''
Australian Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd said New Zealand's decision to intervene in the case, rather than join the suit, was Australia's preferred option.
"We have kept in close consultation with the Government of New Zealand about how best to progress our shared anti-whaling objectives. We are very pleased with the valuable support New Zealand will lend to this vital case.''
Taking Japan to court over its whaling programme is seen as a double-edged sword by many legal experts, who warn that if Australia loses, the case could effectively legitimise the Southern Ocean hunt or at the very least give it moral authority.
They include former New Zealand prime minister Sir Geoffrey Palmer, who was till this year New Zealand's International Whaling Commission representative. He has warned that Australia runs a real risk of losing the case.
- The Dominion Post