A Kiwi conservationist who spent months in a Japanese prison after boarding a whaling ship is disappointed Sea Shepherd is pulling the plug on its mission to stop the trade but hopeful the practice might yet come to an end.
Captain Pete Bethune said he had mixed feelings about the organisation's announcement this morning that it would no longer take on Japanese whaling ships because its resources could not compete with those of its opponents, who were backed by a "major economic super-power".
The ocean-focused conservationist group had sent ships to harass and hinder Japanese whalers for the past 12 years, but said Japan's military was now monitoring the group's ships, making it difficult for them to get close enough to disrupt or document the whaling.
The decision comes after Japan introduced new whaling laws in June that lock in public funding for its whaling programme and allow government agencies to dispatch vessels to the Southern Ocean to disrupt the efforts of activists.
Bethune, a former Sea Shepherd captain, was arrested after he boarded a Japanese whaling ship in February 2010. He pleaded guilty to charges including trespassing, vandalism and holding a knife, which he used to cut netting as he climbed on to the ship from a jet ski, but denied the assault charge, and spent about five months in prison during the process.
He was sentenced to a two years suspended sentence meaning he was allowed to go free as long as he was not arrested again within five years.
Bethune said he was concerned public awareness of the issue might be lost if there were no longer active attempts to stop the ships.
"I do see it as a shame. I do think Sea Shepherd have put a lot of pressure on the Japanese in recent years. They were the only ones prepared to do anything down there [in Antarctica] in recent years," he told the Herald.
"The down side now is it may just fade into the background."
While Sea Shepherd had failed to actually find the ships on its Antarctica missions for the past two years, it still kept the issue in the spotlight, he said.
But at the same time he hoped the decision might allow Japan to save face and make its own decision to end whaling in Antarctica in the next few years.
"I'm dubious but it would be amazing for the Japanese to turn around in a year or two's time and say, 'we're closing down'."
Bethune said he could understand why the organisation had made the decision.
It cost millions of dollars to run missions in Antarctica and it seemed the "game had changed" and the Japanese were more aware of the group's movements and able to avoid them, he said.
"It takes not-for-profits with really deep pockets to go down there," he said. "It's brutally cold, it's dangerous and the Japanese are well resourced."
The situation had changed substantially in recent years and Bethune was proud of the part he played in it.
Japanese ships, which previously killed about 1000 whales each season, reduced their quota to 333 as of 2015 after an unfavourable court ruling.
"Sometimes you have to take the small victories. It was a good result."
He said demand for whale had also dropped in recent years.
"The public in Japan is losing it's taste for whale. Young people in Japan don't eat whale, it's the old people. In some respects it's a dying industry," he said.
Bethune, who now runs Earthrace Conservation, said he had no plans to take up the fight on his own at this stage but may consider it in a few years if it remained an issue.