THE Rudd Government is set to dramatically escalate Australia's efforts to stop Japanese whalers, sending a ship and an aircraft to gather evidence against them in the Southern Ocean, and organising a coalition of nations to campaign against the practice.
Risking a diplomatic row with our second biggest trading partner, Foreign Minister Stephen Smith also announced the Government would send an anti-whaling envoy to Tokyo, while Environment Minister Peter Garrett described what the Japanese were doing as cruel and barbaric.
However, Mr Smith — less than a month into his new job — has also sought to minimise any damage to relations with Japan, saying machine-guns would be removed from the decks of the customs patrol vessel, Oceanic Viking, during surveillance.
He also said Japanese whaling ships would not be boarded and that the Australian vessel — due to leave Fremantle within days — would remain at a safe distance.
The Government's Antarctic Division Airbus, commissioned recently for flights between Hobart and Antarctica, will be sent from Australia's Casey Base to film the whalers from the air.
Mr Smith announced the unprecedented intervention after the Japanese fleet had already reached Antarctic waters for its "scientific" kill, with a quota of 935 minke whales and, more controversially, 50 humpbacks and 50 fin whales, regarded respectively as threatened and endangered species.
Hours after Australia's move, there were suggestions in Tokyo that the Japanese may not go ahead with the humpback kill. The US ambassador to Japan, Thomas Schieffer, said he believed agreement had been reached with Tokyo to spare the humpbacks, which are popular with whale watchers for their distinctive shape and acrobatics. There was no word from Japan on Mr Schieffer's suggestion.
Last night, in its first official response, the Japanese Government called for calm and expressed hope Australia would come to understand its whaling.
"Japan's research whaling is done in accordance with the rules set by the International Whaling Commission," said Japan's Chief Cabinet Secretary, Nobutaka Machimura. "We will continue to explain to Australia through diplomatic channels the necessity of research whaling.
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