Sea Shepherd Being Pursued by Armed Japanese Coast Guard

The Sea Shepherd Conservation Society ship Steve Irwin is enroute back to Melbourne from the Southern Ocean. And the ship is not returning alone.

"We continue to be pursued by the Japanese vessel Fukuyoshi Maru No. 68," said Captain Paul Watson. "This vessel has maintained a distance of 7 miles and has tailed the Steve Irwin since January 15th."

According to media reports, the Japanese Coast Guard has admitted that there is an armed Japanese Coast Guard team in the Southern Oceans.

"Coast guards are there with a view to protect human lives and assets as they  have suffered damage at the hands of activists," Japan Coast Guard spokesman  Takashi Matsumori said on Tuesday, January 29th.

This is the first time since 1992 that the Japanese Coast Guard personnel have been sent to a non-Coast Guard vessel outside of Japanese territorial waters.  The Coast Guard departed from Japan in December on a supply ship according to the Mainichi Shimbun.

The Fisheries Agency officially requested the Coast Guard protection and the government approved the request. Matsumori declined to give details about the current Coast Guard operation, citing security reasons, but said officers had the right to carry guns or other  weapons. The guards "could make arrests if activists enter a ship without permission  of the captain," he said.

Two Sea Shepherd crewmembers, Giles Lane from Briton and Benjamin Potts from  Australia, boarded a harpoon vessel on January 15th, which resulted in an international incident that was resolved only when Australia agreed to transfer the crewmembers from the Japanese vessel Yushin Maru No. 2 back to the Steve Irwin.

Matsumori said the Coast Guard had not been able to take action on that occasion because the officers were on a different ship which was not nearby.  Shortly after the boarding the Fukuyoshi Maru No. 68 arrived and has tailed the Steve Irwin ever since.

"We believe that the armed Japanese Coast Guard officers are on the Fukuyoshi Maru No. 68 and that their task is to prevent us from interfering with Japanese whaling operations," said Captain Watson. "They have been certainly relaying our positions to the whaling fleet."

The Sea Shepherd Conservation Society questions why the Australian Customs and Fisheries vessel Oceanic Viking was required to remove their guns prior to monitoring the Japanese fleet while the Japanese fleet is guarded by armed government military personnel. Sending armed Japanese military officers into the Antarctic Treaty Zone is also a violation of the Antarctic Treaty.

The Sea Shepherd ship Steve Irwin is making plans to return to the Southern Ocean as soon as it can be refueled and one of the main engines repaired. The Sea Shepherd Society is also looking to recruit replacement volunteer crew and needs to collect fresh provisions.

"We can stop the whaling if we can continue to chase them and harass them," said Captain Paul Watson. "We're not deterred by the Japanese Coast Guard. Over the last 30 years I have battled the Navies of Norway, Denmark, Portugal and the Soviet Union and the Canadian Coast Guard. We were not deterred after being fired on by the Soviets and the Norwegians and we will not be deterred by the Japanese. They are the criminals illegally slaughtering whales and we are the defenders upholding international conservation law in accordance with the principles of the United Nations World Charter for Nature."