Japanese whalers face the threat of their worst Antarctic season as conservation activists tighten their hold on the whaling fleet.
A fuel resupply that may be vital to keeping the fleet in the Southern Ocean was being thwarted by the Sea Shepherd activists, who have preoccupied the fleet.
More than a fortnight into a shortened season, few, if any, whales are believed to have been killed. For the activists, the tantalising prospect is rising that for the first time in decades of protest, whaling will be effectively shut down.
''We're doing pretty good at it,'' Sea Shepherd leader Paul Watson said yesterday, ''even though we're not being as proactive as in other seasons.''
Last summer the fleet killed 506 minkes and one fin whale, despite what the Institute of Cetacean Research said was 31 days of violent interruptions by Sea Shepherd.
This year the activists' attacks on whaling ships have been limited to skirmishes with flares, stink bombs and attempts to foul propellers with ropes, in contrast to the collisions that climaxed with last year's wreck of Sea Shepherd's fast boat, the Ady Gil.
Instead, the presence of Sea Shepherd's three-ship fleet and its beefed-up helicopter capacity is proving a match for a whaling fleet, which is reduced to four vessels - factory ship Nisshin Maru and three harpoon boats.
Since finding the fleet in pack ice south-east of New Zealand on New Year's Eve, perhaps hours after it arrived in the whaling grounds, Sea Shepherd's boats Steve Irwin and Bob Barker have been tagged by at least two of the three harpoon ships.
The group's Australian-registered fast interceptor boat, Gojira, tried to reach a fleeing Nisshin Maru without success, but late on Wednesday found the Korean-owned tanker, Sun Laurel, inside Antarctic Treaty waters and close to the international dateline.
Captain Watson said the Sun Laurel's captain admitted being there to refuel the fleet, but said he had not been able to do so. Sea Shepherd was watching the Sun Laurel, and would block a refuelling attempt.
''I think they're desperate for fuel,'' Captain Watson said.
''As long as our ships can prevent any transfer, the fleet will not be able to extend their killing season beyond the first week in February.'' He believed the Nisshin Maru, informed by the harpoon ships, was staying out of helicopter range.
Sea Shepherd's larger ships, which chose not to engage in a fuel-burning pursuit of the Nisshin Maru, have enough in their tanks for the Steve Irwin to stay in the Antarctic into February, and Bob Barker into March.
The Institute of Cetacean Research does not comment on the fleet's movements, and made no statement on the Sun Laurel. It has repeatedly called for Australia to stop condoning the group's actions.
- Sydney Morning Herald