Environmental activist group Sea Shepherd claimed Monday that Japanese whalers attacked its vessels in the Southern Ocean while slamming the Australian government for "broken promises" to monitor whaling operations.
Sea Shepherd said Japanese harpoon ships, the Yushin Maru and Yushin Maru 3, towed steel cables across the bow of its vessel the Bob Barker 11 times on Sunday in a bid to jam its propeller and rudder.
When the Bob Barker launched two small boats to defend the ship and cut the steel cables, it alleged that a bamboo spear was thrown at crew members.
High-seas confrontations are common between Sea Shepherd and the Japanese, who hunt whales off Antarctica under a "scientific research" loophole in the moratorium on whaling.
A 2010 collision resulted in the sinking of Sea Shepherd's speedboat Ady Gil.
Sunday's incident was the third clash since the whaling season started earlier this year. No one was injured.
"Each time we have located the Nisshin Maru (factory ship), the Sea Shepherd fleet has been attacked by the whalers in night-time ambushes," said Bob Barker's captain Peter Hammarstedt.
The ship's helicopter located the Nisshin Maru early Sunday with a Minke whale onboard while "slabs of whale meat were also photographed on the deck, along with the severed head of a recently butchered whale".
The Bob Barker has nine Australians on board and Hammarstedt said he wrote a letter to Australian Environment Minister Greg Hunt last week complaining about a lack of action after the earlier assaults, which he said went unanswered.
"They knew this attack was imminent, and yet they did nothing. Hunt's broken promises to monitor the whaling operations are evident in the broken bodies of the whales killed today," he said.
Hunt had initially promised to send a government ship to tail the warring groups during the annual hunt but opted instead for aerial surveillance.
Sea Shepherd has previously described it as a "pretty cowardly" backdown to appease Japan due to ongoing free trade negotiations.
Hunt's office said Monday a response had been sent to Sea Shepherd and defended the use of a plane rather than a ship.
"For operational reasons, the use of a plane has been determined as the most effective means of monitoring activities in the Southern Ocean. The aircraft will be able to monitor activities over a large area," a spokesman said.
The commercial hunting of whales is prohibited in the Southern Ocean Whale Sanctuary, which was designated by the International Whaling Commission in 1994, but Japan catches the animals there under a "scientific research" loophole in the moratorium on whaling.
Australia has taken Japan to the International Court of Justice seeking to have its research whaling programme declared illegal, with a ruling due this year.