From: Reuters
Published December 13, 2007 01:54 AM

Australian navy may track Japan's whaling fleet

CANBERRA (Reuters) - Australia's new government may send a navy ship to Antarctica to track Japan's whaling fleet and gather evidence to mount a legal challenge, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd said on Thursday.

Japan's whaling fleet plans to hunt 935 minke whales, 50 fin whales and for the first time in 40 years, 50 humpback whales for research over the Antarctic summer, with the fleet already on its way south followed by anti-whaling activists.

"We take seriously Australia's international obligations on the proper protection of whales," Rudd told reporters on the sidelines of the U.N. environment summit in Bali.

"We would not rule out the use of Australian assets to collect appropriate data including photographic evidence concerning whaling activities," he said, adding a decision on sending a ship was likely next week.

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Humpbacks were hunted nearly to extinction until protected by the International Whaling Commission in 1966.

Australia is a strong opponent of whaling and Rudd's government is mulling a legal case against Japan in the International Court of Justice in The Hague.

Japan's fisheries agency, confident its whaling rights will be confirmed, has challenged any country to take it to the court for a binding judgment.

Japan's new ambassador to Canberra, Taka-aki Kojima, this week said Tokyo was aware of widespread anger in Australia over Japan's whaling plans, but said research whaling was lawful in accordance with international conventions.

Kojima said new Australian Foreign Minister Steven Smith had promised stronger action against Japanese whaling than Australia's previous conservative government.

Japan has long resisted pressure to stop scientific whaling and says whaling is a cherished cultural tradition.

The meat, which under commission rules must be sold for consumption, ends up in supermarkets and restaurants, but the appetite for what is now a delicacy is fading.

Rudd's center-left Labor government has flagged sending warships beyond Australian waters into the country's self-proclaimed Antarctic territory, not recognized by other nations and which includes a whale sanctuary.

Australian international law specialist Don Rothwell earlier this year warned naval patrols would breach the 1959 Antarctic Treaty, which deemed Antarctica to be a demilitarized zone, and possibly spark an international incident.

(Reporting by Rob Taylor, editing by Sanjeev Miglani)

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