Australia and Japan sparred verbally Tuesday at a meeting of the International Whaling Commission, after Japan called on Australia to better protect its whaling ships from sabotage raids by anti-whaling activists.
Confrontations with activists forced Japan to cut short its annual hunt south of Australia this year. Protesters threw paint, smoke bombs and rancid butter in bottles toward the Japanese whaling ships. They also got a rope entangled in the propeller on a harpoon vessel, causing it to slow down.
Australia rebuffed Japan's request, with Environment Minister Tony Burke saying that while Australia would abide by the principles of safety at sea and international maritime law, his country "simply can't agree" to providing more protection to Japanese ships than other vessels operating in the area.
Japanese whalers regularly hunt in Antarctic waters south of Australia, a feeding ground for 80 percent of the world's whales, and the commission has no enforcement powers to stop them. Japan insists the hunt is for scientific research, something anti-whaling nations dispute.
"This so-called scientific whaling lacks any scientific argument behind it," Burke said. "What's going on there is commercial whaling. Australia is opposed to commercial whaling."
Australia has launched a complaint against Japanese whaling at the International Court of Justice in The Hague, the U.N.'s highest court.
Commercial whaling is banned by a 1986 moratorium. Talks on allowing limited commercial whaling broke down last year, and no breakthroughs are expected at IWC talks in Jersey.
Britain has proposed reforms to make the commission more transparent and effective, including by forcing governments to pay their membership fees by bank transfers, which can be easily traced, instead of cash or checks.
The move comes in the wake of allegations last year that Japan has been using aid money and personal favors to buy votes, which Japan denies.
"I still hear that people are paying their dues in cash. I think that's unacceptable ... and leaves an organization open to accusations," British Fisheries minister Richard Benyon said. "These may be perceptions not reality, but it's something this organization has to tackle."
The British proposal was held up by procedural issues Tuesday and will be re-tabled Wednesday.