Australia has threatened Japan with diplomatic action over its whaling programme, after Japan reportedly dispatched its whaling fleet in the Southern Ocean for what Tokyo calls a scientific expedition.
On Saturday, Tony Burke, Australia's environment minister, condemned the move by Japan, describing the claims that its whaling programme is for scientific research as "a joke".
The Australian government has been a long-time critic of the activities of Japan's whaling fleet in regional waters, and initiated legal proceedings against the whaling programme in the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in May 2010.
Burke told reporters in Sydney that he did not expect a response from the ICJ until "sometime next year," but called on Japan to respect a moratorium on whaling in the Southern Ocean.
"In the interim it is open to Japan any day of the year to take the same action that the rest of world has taken and that is to observe a moratorium in the Southern Ocean. That is to accept that commercial whaling is wrong and scientific whaling is a joke," he said.
"We cannot continue to have a situation where everybody knows it's nothing to do with science and yet, with a nod and a wink, Japanese fleets travel from one side of the globe to the other to engage in this, and to break the moratorium year after year," Burke added.
Burke said that although he had not received official confirmation that Japan's annual whaling hunt had begun, he received no such information before last year's activities commenced, and did not expect to get confirmation this year.
Paul Watson, the founder of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, said the moratorium on whaling should be enforced by the International Whaling Authority.
“Unfortunately this body doesn’t really have any teeth. And the signatory members of the International Whaling Commission should be doing something but there is no economic or political motivation for them to do anything about it,” Watson said.
“There is no difference between what the Japanese are doing in the Southern Ocean whale sanctuary and what elephant poachers are doing in the eastern Kenya. Except that in Kenya poachers are black, they are poor and they get shot for what they are doing.”
On Friday Japanese news agency Kyodo reported that three whaling vessels had left the western Japanese port of Shimonoseki.
Australia's opposition environment spokesman Greg Hunt has publicly said that should his Liberal party coalition win government at the 2013 federal election, they would consider sending an Australian customs vessel to monitor the annual whale hunt.
Japan's previous annual whaling expeditions to the Southern Ocean have resulted in violent clashes between Japanese boats and vessels from the Sea Shepherd conservation group, drawing condemnation from Australian and New Zealand authorities.