By Rob Taylor
CANBERRA (Reuters) - Four nations, including the United States and Australia, have urged anti-whaling activists and Japan's whaling fleet to avoid a repeat of violent clashes over the upcoming Southern Ocean whale hunt, warning of the risk of deaths and injuries.
Japan's whaling fleet left Shimonoseki Port this month to begin the research whaling season near Antarctic, accompanied by a Japanese Fisheries Agency guard boat to ward off protests by activists of the Sea Shepherd group.
"We are deeply concerned that confrontations in the Southern Ocean will eventually lead to injury or loss of life among protesters, many of whom may be nationals of our countries, and whaling crews," the governments of Australia, the Netherlands, New Zealand and the United States said in a joint statement.
Last season, Japan cut short its annual whale hunt with less than a fifth of their quota in response to harassment by the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society which saw an activist boat -- The Ady Gil -- sunk in a collision with a Japanese ship.
Sea Shepherd, whose board was joined this month by former "James Bond" actor Sean Connery, has tipped protests this season could be among the worst yet, urging Australia and New Zealand to send a patrol vessel to the Southern Ocean to keep the peace.
Japan -- which along with Iceland and Norway is one of one three countries that hunt whales -- introduced scientific whaling to skirt the commercial whaling ban under a 1986 moratorium. It argues it has a right to monitor the whales' impact on its fishing industry.
Australia has so far refused to send a patrol vessel to the Southern Ocean this year, although Canberra did send an armed customs ship south two years ago to gather evidence for a legal challenge against Japan.
Last year, Australia filed a complaint against Japan at the world court in the Hague to stop Southern Ocean scientific whaling. A decision is expected in 2013 or later.
All four governments urged the captains of all vessels involved in protests this year to ensure that safety of human life at sea was their highest priority, as the frigid Southern Ocean was particularly "remote and unforgiving."
"The risk of adverse incidents is high and the capacity for search and rescue or other assistance is low. Any incident in this region jeopardizes not only the safety of whaling and protest vessels and their crews but also anyone who comes to their assistance," they said.
The four countries said they remained opposed to commercial whaling and were "disappointed" by the departure of the Japanese fleet for Antarctic waters, which are accessible for only a few months during the Southern Hemisphere summer.
"We are prepared to deal with any unlawful activity in accordance with relevant international and domestic laws," their statement said.
Sea Shepherd founder Paul Watson said this year would be the most dangerous campaign yet against the Japanese in a protest dubbed "Operation Kamikaze."
The Institute for Cetacean Research, which is behind the country's whaling program, this month filed a lawsuit in the United States against the Sea Shepherd group.
(Editing by Ed Davies and Yoko Nishikawa)