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Antarctic whaling fleet returning to Japan early

TOKYO – Japan canceled the rest of its whale hunting season in Antarctic waters Friday citing repeated harassment by Sea Shepherd activists at sea, after netting only a fifth of its targeted catch of 850 whales.

Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, which Japanese officials have derided as a terrorist group for its annual harassment of the country’s whalers, hailed the result as a victory and said it would keep up the pressure next year.

Australia, which has campaigned against the Japanese whale hunt and wants to bring the issue before an international tribunal, also welcomed the halt – the first time activists have forced the fleet to end its season earlier than planned.

“Every year we’ve gotten stronger, “ Sea Shepherd founder Paul Watson told the Associated Press by satellite phone from the group’s protest vessel Steve Irwin. “We had better equipment, we had a longer-range helicopter … really, it came down to having more resources.”

The Japanese fleet’s seasonal quota is 945 whales, but it had targeted a catch of 850 whales this season. It will return home with roughly one-fifth of that, the ministry said.

The whale hunts, which Japan says are for scientific purposes, are allowed by the International Whaling Commission as an exception to the 1986 ban on whaling, but opponents say they are a cover for commercial whaling because whale meat not used for study is sold for consumption in Japan.