Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, which Japanese officials have condemned as a terrorist group for its annual harassment of the country’s whalers, hailed the result as a victory and said it would keep up the pressure.
Australia, which has campaigned against Japan’s whale hunt and wants to bring the issue before an international tribunal, also welcomed the halt – the first time whalers ended a season prematurely since Sea Shepherd’s campaign started seven years ago.
“Every year we’ve gotten stronger,” group founder Paul Watson said from its protest vessel Steve Irwin. It is one of three devoted to the campaign, up from two last year.
“We had better equipment, we had a longer-range helicopter... really, it came down to having more resources,” Mr Watson said.
Japan’s ministry of agriculture, forestry and fisheries said the fleet would be returning home soon, though did not provide an exact timeline. The fleet left Japan on December 2 and was scheduled to remain until at least early March.
“We had no choice but to end (the season) to ensure the safety of lives, assets and our ships,” fisheries minister Michihiko Kano told a news conference.
The Japanese fleet’s seasonal quota is 945 whales, but had targeted a catch of 850 whales this season. It will return home with roughly a fifth of that, the ministry said.
In past weeks, protesters have thrown rancid butter in bottles toward the whaling ships and also once got a rope entangled in the propeller on a harpoon vessel, causing it to slow down.
Sea Shepherd’s efforts have drawn high-profile donor support in the US and elsewhere and spawned the popular Animal Planet series Whale Wars.
The whale hunts, which Japan says are for scientific purposes, are allowed by the International Whaling Commission as an exception to the 1986 ban on whaling.