TOKYO - Japan has suspended its annual whale hunt in the Antarctic for now after a hardline anti-whaling group gave chase to its mother ship and it may call the fleet back home, a government official said.
Regular attempts by Sea Shepherd Conservation Society to interrupt hunts have caused irritation in Japan, one of only three countries that now hunts whales and where the government says it is an important cultural tradition.
"Putting safety as a priority, the fleet has halted scientific whaling for now. We are currently considering what to do hereafter," said Tatsuya Nakaoku, an official at the Fisheries Agency.
When asked if Japan was considering bringing back the fleet earlier than planned, he said this remained an option and added that Japan's whaling plans were not going smoothly.
Representatives for Sea Shepherd were not immediately available for comment.
Japan introduced scientific whaling to skirt the commercial whaling ban under a 1986 moratorium, arguing it had a right to watch the whales' impact on its fishing industry.
The fleet, consisting of some 180 people on four vessels, is aiming to cull about 850 minke whales in Antarctic waters this season, which is scheduled to end around March.
In the same period last year, Japan killed 506 minke whales, well below its planned catch of around 850.
Last year, Australia filed a complaint against Japan at the world court in The Hague to stop Southern Ocean scientific whaling. The decision is expected to come in 2013 or later.
A Sea Shepherd activist was given a two-year suspended jail term by a Japanese court in July for boarding a whaling ship, while one of the group's ships sank last year after a collision with a Japanese whaling ship.
(Reporting by Yoko Kubota; Editing by Edwina Gibbs)