JAPANESE whalers have suspended their Antarctic hunt citing harassment by environmentalists, and are considering ending their annual mission early.
Japanese Fisheries Agency official Tatsuya Nakaoku said the Japanese factory ship, the Nisshin Maru, had suspended operations since February 10 "to ensure the safety (of the crew)" following numerous skirmishes with Sea Shepherd activists in icy Antarctic waters.
"We are now studying the situation, including the possibility of cutting the mission early," Mr Nakaoku said in Tokyo.
Ever since the Japanese began their whale hunt in the Southern Ocean in December, the Sea Shepherd's three vessels - the Steve Irwin, the Bob Barker and the Gojira - have been harassing the whalers, trying to stop them harpooning the giant mammals.
Whalers resorted to using water canons against activists who threw stink bombs made up of butyric acid - rotten butter - as well as allegedly aiming ropes at the rudders of the whaling vessels.
This summer the Japanese hoped to kill 935 minke whales, 50 fin whales and 50 humpbacks, but Sea Shepherd's president and captain of the Steve Irwin, Paul Watson, doubted the whalers had even reached 10 per cent of their quota.
"They've probably killed between 30 and 100 whales - I doubt they've got 100," he said. "We've shut them down pretty much every day."
News of the suspension was last night welcomed by the Greens leader Bob Brown saying Australians would be preparing to put champagne on ice.
Mr Brown said that if the news is indeed true there would be a terrific celebration when Sea Shepherd comes back to Hobart.
"The rapidly brightening prospects of Japan removing its whaling fleet from Antarctic waters will have Australians putting champagne on ice, coast to coast," Senator Bob Brown said.
Green marine spokeswoman Rachel Siewert said the news might signal the beginning of the end to Japanese whaling in the Southern Ocean.
"There are indications that the activities of Sea Shepherd have been effective in significantly reducing this year's catch," Senator Siewert said.
"The combination of difficult times in the Japanese economy, the recent exposure of corruption in the whale meat industry by Greenpeace and the changing tide of domestic opinion are also attributable causes."
Japan kills hundreds of whales a year under a loophole in a 1986 moratorium on commercial whaling that allows "lethal research".
The Government has long defended the practice as part of the nation's culture and makes no secret of the fact that the meat ends up in restaurants.
Anti-whaling nations, led by Australia and New Zealand, and environmental groups call the hunts cruel and unnecessary. Australia has started action against Tokyo over whaling in the International Court of Justice.
Greenpeace has long argued the state-financed whale hunts are a waste of taxpayers' money, producing stockpiles of whale meat that far exceed demand in Japan, where diets and culinary fashions have changed in recent years.
Junichi Sato, an anti-whaling campaigner at Greenpeace, said the group had information that the fleet would indeed return home early because Japan is already burdened with excess stocks of whale meat.
"Given the excessive stockpiles, they are economically troubled," he said, noting that the factory ship is not big enough to carry the hunt's target number of up to 1000 whales.
"Harassment has been cited as the reason, but really this is about Japan's internal situation."
Mr Sato and another Greenpeace activist are appealing against suspended one-year jail terms handed down last year for stealing a box of salted whale meat as part of an investigation into alleged corruption in the whaling program.