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Japan abandoned its whale hunt for the first time in four years, saying clashes between its fleet and protesters in boats in the Southern Ocean had threatened the lives of the whalers.

The government made the decision _to secure the safety of ships and their crew,_ Agriculture Minister Michihiko Kano said in a press briefing on NHK Television. Foreign Minister Seiji Maehara said the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society boats engaged in _dangerous, unlawful acts_ in blocking the whaling vessels.

Japan spends as much as $60 million a year on its whaling programs and relies on official sales of meat from the Antarctic hunt to fund 85 percent of the costs. Australia in May filed a case against Japan in the International Court of Justice claiming its whaling program is illegal, while New Zealand said both sides violated international laws when a Sea Shepherd boat sank last year during a skirmish with the whalers.

Sea Shepherd sent vessels to the area for the seventh year this season and said earlier this week its 801-metric ton Bob Barker vessel had trailed the 8,044-metric ton Nisshin Maru ship for 2,000 miles (3,220 kilometers) near the Southern Ocean. The group claimed it had prevented hunting since Feb. 9.

Short of Quota

The whalers caught 170 minke whales out of a planned 850 and 2 fin whales from a planned 50, Kyodo News reported today.

_If they return next season, Sea Shepherd Conservation Society will be ready to resume their efforts to obstruct and disable illegal Japanese whaling operations,_ the organization said in a statement on its website today.

A powerboat skippered by Sea Shepherd activist Peter Bethune was sliced in two during a January 2010 collision with the harpoon vessel Shonan Maru 2. Bethune, a New Zealander who used the vessel for the fastest powerboat circumnavigation of the world in 2008, later boarded the Shonan Maru where he was arrested, tried in Japan and given a suspended prison term.

Japan_s Institute of Cetacean Research, which conducts the annual hunts, accused Sea Shepherd of _dangerous and violent actions_ in throwing _flash bang_ grenades onto the Yushin Maru No. 2 vessel on Jan. 9 as the activists attempted to jam the whaling ships propeller with ropes. Sea Shepherd denied it possesses the weapons while admitting to throwing smoke and stink bombs during the incident.

2007 Fire

It_s the first time Japan has cut short its expedition since 2007, when a fire on the Nisshin Maru killed one crewmember and brought the fleet to a standstill for nine days. The fire wasn_t a result of skirmishes with activists, the whaling fleet operator Kyodo Senpaku Kaisha said at the time.

Japan conducts the hunts using a rule under a 1986 moratorium on commercial whaling that allows _lethal research_ on the mammals provided that meat from slaughtered whales, known as research byproduct, is later consumed. The government says the program is needed to prove the whale numbers have revived sufficiently to allow commercial whaling.

Australia_s government has called Japan_s scientific whaling _a charade_ and former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd promised a tougher stance on Japan_s annual whale hunts when campaigning in the 2007 general election. The government sued Japan, its second-largest trading partner, in May in The Hague claiming the hunts violate the terms of the International Whaling Commission_s moratorium on whaling.

_Positive Step_

_This is a positive step but the Government wants to see an end to whaling, not just for a season, but for good,_ Rudd, now Foreign Minister, said in a joint statement with Environment Minister Tony Burke today. Australia will continue to pursue its case, the statement said.

Japan_s hunts take place in and around the Southern Ocean Whale Sanctuary, an area designated by the International Whaling Commission in 1994 to prevent commercial whaling. The 88-member commission is divided between pro-whaling nations including Japan, Norway and Iceland seeking a return to commercial whaling and opponents including New Zealand and the European Union.

At the commission_s annual meeting in Agadir, Morocco in June, delegates agreed a one-year _pause_ on negotiations over the moratorium, the Associated Press reported at the time. The next meeting is scheduled for May in Tromso, Norway.

Critics including environmental group Greenpeace International, argue the annual hunts are a waste of taxpayers_ money and take place for political rather than food supply reasons. Japan had a stockpile of 4,455 metric tons of frozen whale meat in December from previous expeditions, according to the latest official data.

Maruha Group Inc., Kyokuyo Co. and Nippon Suisan Kaisha Ltd., three of Japan_s largest fish companies, withdrew from the whaling industry in 2006, citing commercial reasons, leaving it in the hands of Japan_s government.

_Japan_s whaling serves no purpose whatsoever and the fleet has no business in the Southern Ocean Whale Sanctuary,_ Junichi Sato, executive director of Greenpeace Japan, said today in an e-mail. _An early return of the whaling fleet is not enough, Japan_s whaling ships should never leave port again._

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