Japan has apparently agreed not to kill humpback whales during its current Antarctic hunt, the US ambassador to Tokyo said on Wednesday, a move that could help ease criticism of its controversial whaling program.
Japan's whaling fleet set sail last month with plans to catch more than 1,000 whales, including 50 humpbacks, which are popular among whale-watchers for their distinctive silhouettes and acrobatic leaps, before returning to port early next year.
Humpbacks were hunted to near extinction until the International Whaling Commission ordered their protection in 1966 and the planned hunt had sparked a loud outcry from activists.
"I think we had an agreement ... between the United States and Japan that humpback whales would not be harvested, I think, until maybe the International Whaling Conference in June," US ambassador to Japan Thomas Schieffer told a small group of reporters.
Because of migration patterns, the delay would mean it would be "a while before they are at risk again," Schieffer added.
Australia announced on Wednesday that it would send a fisheries patrol ship to shadow Japan's whaling fleet near Antarctica and gather evidence for a possible international court challenge to halt the yearly hunt.
Separately, Greenpeace sent a ship on Wednesday to try to stop the Japanese fleet hunting whales.
Japan has long resisted pressure to stop what it calls scientific whaling, insisting that whaling is a cherished cultural tradition.
"Japan's whaling is being conducted in line with international treaties and for the purpose of scientific research. We would like to win the understanding of others," a Japanese foreign ministry spokesman said in Tokyo.