CANBERRA — Anti-whaling activists clashed with Japanese whalers in the Southern Ocean on Monday, prompting a diplomatic complaint from Tokyo to Canberra and a rebuke for the activists from the Australian government.
Members of the hardline Sea Shepherd group threw bottles and containers of foul-smelling substances at the Japanese factory ship the Nisshin Maru as part of the organisation's campaign to disrupt Japan's annual whale hunt.
Three Japanese sailors were injured after the chemical cocktail splashed into the eyes of two coastguard crew and one whaler causing irritation, said an official with Japan's Fisheries Agency in Tokyo. He declined to give the location of the incident for security reasons.
Australia's Foreign Minister Stephen Smith said Japanese officials had complained to the Australian Embassy in Tokyo.
"I absolutely condemn actions by crew members of any vessel that cause injury, or have the potential to cause injury, to anyone on the high seas," he said on Monday.
Sea Shepherd's leader Paul Watson described the incident as "non-violent chemical warfare", saying the substances thrown at the Japanese ship were harmless, foul-smelling and slippery substances, designed to make it difficult to process whales.
"I guess we can call this non-violent chemical warfare," Watson said in a statement from the Sea Shepherd. "We only use organic, non-toxic materials designed to harass and obstruct illegal whaling operations."
More than 100 glass bottles containing an unidentified white powder, and butyric acid, which comes from rancid butter, were thrown at the Nisshin Maru, the Fisheries Agency official said.
The whalers responded by hosing down the activists, he said.
The whaling ship and the Sea Shepherd vessel came within 10 metres (33 feet) of each other during the exchange, which lasted for an hour until the activists had run out of ammunition, the official said.
"This is an act that tries to unfairly harm the safety of a ship and crew that is acting within the law at sea," Japan's top government spokesman Nobutaka Machimura told a news conference. "It's an unforgivable act and we protest strongly."
The clash between the 139-crew whaling ship and Sea Shepherd's ship of 33 protesters follows a high-profile standoff in which two anti-whaling activists boarded another Japanese whaling ship in the Southern Ocean in January.
The incident, resolved after the activists were handed over to an Australian fisheries patrol, briefly suspended Japan's plan to kill nearly 1,000 whales during the year's Antarctic summer.
Japan, which considers whaling to be a cultural tradition, abandoned commercial whaling after agreeing to an international moratorium in 1986, but began what it calls a scientific research whaling programme the following year.
It has since struggled to appease countries such as Australia, which strongly opposes the hunting of whales and is looking at mounting an international court case against Japan's annual whale hunt.
On Monday, Japan hosted a whaling seminar with countries from Africa and Asia, although in a sign that even Japanese opinion is divided on the issue, several protestors gathered outside the venue, with one dressed as a whale.
"Whaling tends to be an emotional issue, but we need to discuss it calmly, from a scientific standpoint," Japan's senior vice foreign minister, Itsunori Onodera, told the seminar.