The so-called "whale wars" are heating up in the oceans off Australia, with three Australian anti-whaling activists said to be held captive aboard a Japanese whaling boat.
The Sea Shepherd anti-whaling group says three members of the the Forest Rescue Australia environmental group were being held as "prisoners" by the Japanese harpoon fleet after boarding the Shonan Maru 2 off Australia's west coast.
"The three negotiated their way past the razor wire and spikes and over the rails of the Japanese whaling vessel," the militant US-based Sea Shepherd Conservation Society said in a statement.
The Japanese fleet left port last Tuesday on the country's annual whale hunt in Antarctic waters, and Sea Shepherd said it planned to harass the whalers throughout their voyage.
The Australian captives, Simon Peterffy, 44, Geoffrey Tuxworth, 47 and Glen Pendlebury, 27 were, according to the Sydney Morning Herald, trying to force the whaler to abandon its pursuit of the Sea Shepherd ship, Steve Irwin.
The Federal Government is under pressure to secure the men's release, however Canberra has moved to lower expectations of what it could do — with Attorney-General Nicola Roxon saying the men boarded the vessel outside Australian territorial waters and it was possible they face prosecution in Japan.
"We hope that it won't come to that, but you do have to look at the past to know that it is likely these three Australians may be taken back to Japan," she said, according to Australia's ABC News.
She said the government had been in touch with the Japanese government to find out exactly where the ship was in Australia's exclusive economic zone, which encompasses waters off Western Australia but is not necessarily Australian territory.
However, the Shonan Maru 2 — which is used by the whaling fleet to tail and deter anti-whaling ships — had not applied to come to shore to offload the three protesters, meaning they could end up in Japan.
Tokyo's Institute of Cetacean Research (ICR), which conducts the Antarctic whaling program on behalf of the Japanese government, has already said the trio risked being taken to Japan and jailed.
ICR spokesman Glenn Inwood told WA Today over the weekend that the men had boarded the vessel well outside Australian territorial waters — about 24 miles from the coast — and any suggestion otherwise was false.
"What these guys don't understand is that the government of Japan's tolerance for Sea Shepherd and its supporters is extremely low and they risk facing that back in Japan," he said
Last year Peter Bethune, the skipper of a New Zealand boat, was put on trial in Japan after boarding the Shonan Maru 2 and attempting to make a citizen's arrest on the ship's captain. Bethune was hit with a suspended prison term.
Australia's opposition, meantime, said the men's detention could have been avoided if the Government acted earlier.
"We wrote not just once, not just twice, but three times warning the Government that precisely this sort of conflict was looming," opposition environment spokesman Greg Hunt told the ABC.
"These are Australian citizens in Australian waters; an Australian incident, and the Australian Government should make sure the protesters are immediately handed to Australian authorities who can make their own judgments on whether or not action is required." he reportedly said.
The Australian government on Dec. 7 rejected a call from Japan to provide more security for its whaling fleet, Agence France-Presse reported.
Sea Shepherd — which says on its website that it was funding three ships with 88 crewmembers in its months-long pursuit of the whalers this year — had also asked Australia to send a ship in case a confrontation developed, as has happened previously.