TOKYO (AFP) - Japan came under a storm of criticism Monday for going ahead with its largest whale hunt yet, with Australia's resurgent opposition calling for the military to be brought in.
Defying warnings from its Western allies that it would inflame an emotional row on whaling, Japan on Sunday sent its fleet to the Antarctic Ocean. The hunt will include famed humpback whales for the first time.
A ship of Greenpeace environmentalists tried -- so far in vain -- to track down the six-vessel whaling fleet as Australia, Britain and New Zealand all condemned the catch.
Japan, which argues that whale meat is part of its culture, plans to kill 950 whales on the five-month mission using a loophole in a global moratorium that allows "lethal research" on the giant mammals.
Australia's opposition Labor Party, which is leading in polls ahead of national elections Saturday, said it would send out the navy to track the Japanese whalers and take video footage if it takes power.
"We really need to rattle the cage here," Labor's foreign affairs spokesman Robert McClelland said.
"It's unacceptable that it's not only going on, but getting worse."
Prime Minister John Howard said while "I totally disagree" with Japanese whaling, he opposed bringing in the military.
"What, is he going to shoot them?" Howard asked.
"Mr McClelland knows darn well that what he is suggesting is an empty gesture, that what we should be doing is continuing to pursue diplomatically and with whatever legal mechanisms are available to us."
Hideki Moronuki, the whaling chief at Japan's Fisheries Agency, also cast doubt on the threats by Australia's opposition.
"The whaling research which Japan is conducting is 100 percent based on the International Whaling Commission charter, so dispatching the military against it is impossible," Moronuki told AFP.
The environmental group Greenpeace's Espernaza ship was also trying to find the fleet to shoot footage but said that the whalers had turned off identification equipment.
"They're playing a little hard to get," Greenpeace activist Dave Walsh told AFP by satellite telephone from aboard the Esperanza in the Pacific Ocean.
"If they're so confident they were doing the right thing, they shouldn't have anything to hide, but obviously they do," he said, pledging Greenpeace would find them eventually.
The more militant Sea Shepherd Conservation Society has vowed to take to the waters next month to physically stop the hunt.
During the last expedition, Sea Shepherd activists threw bottles of chemicals at the whalers in hopes of disrupting them, leading Japan to denounce anti-whaling activists as "terrorists."
Humpback whales, protected under a 1966 worldwide moratorium after years of overhunting, are renowned for their complex songs and acrobatic displays.
The humpbacks' slow progression along Australia's coast to breed has turned into a major tourist attraction bringing 1.5 million whale watchers a year.
The Japanese whaling chief said that the fleet was not targeting humpback whales.
"Japan doesn't have a specific position on humpback whales. They are a fisheries resource as much as any other whale and when it is scientifically proven that there are enough resources, we conduct sustained research," Moronuki said.
Only Norway and Iceland openly defy a 1986 moratorium on commercial hunting of all whales.
Japan argues that it abides by the agreement but makes no secret that the meat from the hunt goes on dinner plates.
In New Zealand, Prime Minister Helen Clark said: "We don't like the Japanese whaling fleet being down there at all."
"It would just be better if the Japanese stayed home and didn't come down under the guise, the deception, the claim that it is scientific whaling when they want to take a thousand whales," Clark said.
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