Australia to monitor whaling from air, drawing criticism

Australian Environment Minister Greg Hunt announced over the weekend that Australia will send an aircraft to Antarctica to monitor Japan's upcoming whale hunt, a move criticized by environmentalists and anti-whaling groups as a broken promise and ineffective.

Hunt said Sunday that the Australian Customs and Border Protection Service will use an Airbus A319 for aerial surveillance on both protesters and whalers over the whaling season from January to March.

"It will be to ensure that there is a presence to make sure that there is no conflict between the parties, and it will be also to ensure that there is awareness from all parties that the world is watching," he told reporters in Frankston, Victoria.

He also reiterated that the Australian government is "resolutely opposed to commercial whaling and so-called 'scientific' whaling."

By monitoring the hunt from the air, Hunt was criticized for breaking an election promise to send a Customs vessel if there is any attempt to whale in the Southern Ocean.

Greens Sen. Peter Whish-Wilson said Hunt has failed his first test on whaling as minister after years of strong rhetoric, according to the Australian Associated Press.

"If Greg Hunt has any integrity, he will resign his ministerial position," Whish-Wilson posted on Twitter.

Bob Brown, chairman of anti-whaling group Sea Shepherd, Australia, told the AAP on Monday that Hunt had caved under pressure and, "weak at the knees" and "kowtowing", did not want to offend Japan during free-trade negotiations.

"They're going to fly over at a height seeing what we all know is happening down there, and that's the bloody and illegal destruction of Australian whales," the former federal Greens leader was quoted as saying.

"They are effectively turning a blind eye to the Japanese slaughter," he added.

Australian Sea Shepherd director Jeff Hansen said the purpose-built Customs ice-breaker vessel Oceanic Protector, which is currently patrolling for asylum seekers at Christmas Island off northern Australia, should be used instead of the aircraft, according to the AAP.

"It's really going to have no impact whatsoever. It's a waste of taxpayer dollars," he was quoted as saying.

Australia, with support from New Zealand, has taken Japan to the International Court of Justice, arguing that Japan's "scientific research" whaling program is a cover for commercial whaling in breach of its obligations under the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling. A ruling is expected shortly.

Sea Shepherd launched its 10th anti-whaling campaign, Operation Relentless, last week, expecting to intercept Japanese vessels in the southern waters around late December.

The organization credits its campaign for Japanese whalers' poor achievement during the last whaling season, in which they caught only 10 percent of their around 1,000-whale quota.

During the current season, which lasts through March, they aim to slaughter up to 935 minke whales and up to 50 fin whales.