New Zealand's new Conservation Minister has sent out a strongly worded message to Japan as the country prepares to hunt what is believed to be the world's rarest whale.
The world's only known white humpback whale could be slaughtered as Japan's whaling fleet prepares to embark on its annual hunt in the Southern Ocean, Australians fear. The unique male whale, named Migaloo - an Aboriginal word for "white fella" - has become a celebrity in Australia since being spotted in 1991.
Conservation Minister Steve Chadwick said New Zealand was strongly opposed to whaling and that Migaloo's death would be "very sad".
Each year, Migaloo and thousands of other humpbacks migrate from the seas of Antarctica to the warm shallows of the South Pacific and the Great Barrier Reef. A few months later the whales return to Antarctica.
The arrival of Migaloo is keenly anticipated by whale watchers along Australia's east coast. Conservationists fear that Migaloo is so accustomed to boats that he will be easy pickings for Japanese hunters. The Japanese whaling fleet is preparing to leave port within days.
People who have encountered Migaloo on his journey of migration describe the sight as a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
"He turned the blue water around him jade-green for two or three metres," one Australian whale-watcher said of a sighting two years ago.
Scientists are uncertain whether Migaloo is a true albino or simply has white pigmentation.
Japan has declared that for the first time it will kill 50 humpbacks, as well as 50 fin whales and hundreds of minke whales. The Japanese argue that the ban on whale hunting means levels of fin and humpback whales have recovered and they can withstand being harpooned again.
The Fisheries Agency in Tokyo refused to rule out killing Migaloo yesterday, with officials offering a blunt "no comment" to media inquiries. Instead, the agency called on Australia and New Zealand to ensure that the Japanese fleet would be protected from anti-whaling ships operated by a militant environmental group, the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society.
But last night Ms Chadwick said she didn't believe Japan was entitled to demand New Zealand protection for its whaling fleet.
Last year, Sea Shepherd threatened to ram the Japanese fleet with a ship fitted with a bulldozer-type blade. The group has been branded environmental terrorists by Tokyo.
Paul Watson, captain of the Sea Shepherd's two vessels, said at the time he was considering giving the whaler Nisshin Maru a "steel enema" by ramming its slipway.
After an urgent call from then-Conservation Minister Chris Carter, Captain Watson withdrew the threat.