Associated Press Writer
TOKYO—Ships from Japan's whaling fleet returned to port Monday after violent clashes with conservationists in the Antarctic Ocean damaged its ships and left the season's catch well short of its target.
Some of the vessels had mangled guard rails and large scratches in their sides, which officials said was the result of heated run-ins with a boat operated by the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, a militant environmental group from the U.S.
The fleet killed 679 minke whales and one fin whale during its five-month hunt, below its stated goals of up to 935 minke whales and 50 fin whales.
"This season's catch was reduced as a result of the interference by protesters," said Shigeki Takaya, a Fisheries Agency spokesman.
Three vessels from Japan's fleet on Monday docked in Shimonoseki, a port town about 500 miles (800 kilometers) southwest of Tokyo, with the mother ship due in Tuesday, according to the agency. Two other ships returned to Japan last week.
Kazuo Yamamura, president of Kyodo Senpaku Kaisha, which operates the whaling fleet, on Monday told reporters he was upset by damaged allegedly caused to his ships by Sea Shepherd.
"I'm enraged, and my blood is boiling with anger," he said.
The company has blamed Sea Shepherd for skirmishes at sea, saying it was the protesters who escalated the attacks by ramming two Japanese vessels and pelting whalers with acid-filled glass bottles.
Japan's whale hunt is allowed under international rules as a scientific program, despite a 1986 ban on commercial whaling. Whale meat not used for study is sold for consumption in Japan, which critics say is the real reason for the hunt.
Whale was widely eaten in Japan when other meats were scarce after World War II. It is no longer a common food in the country, although meat from the hunt is sold in Japanese supermarkets and upscale restaurants.
The country's whaling program is the target of strong criticism by Western environmentalist groups like Greenpeace and Sea Shepherd, which has vowed to physically interrupt the hunts until they are ceased. Japanese officials have described such protesters as "terrorists" and "pirates," and applied political pressure to stop their activities.
Neighboring Australia has said that the whales do not need to be killed to be studied, and has started its own nonlethal research program.
This year, the Sea Shepherd's boat chased the fleet more than 2,000 miles (3,200 kilometers) through the icy waters of the Antarctic Ocean before withdrawing in February.
Captain Paul Watson said at the time he broke off the chase because there was too great a risk of a serious injury at sea, due to the increasingly hostile exchanges between the two groups. But he vowed to return to the Antarctic next whaling season.
Japan temporarily suspended its whale hunt in January after a crewman was lost after he apparently fell overboard Monday from one of its vessels. The accident was not related to the Sea Shepherd protests.
- Read more science news.