THE future of Japan's lethal whale research is in question, with internal criticism of its controversial Antarctic hunt fuelled by doubts the whalers can evade conservationist pursuit.
A senior member of a government review panel set up to advise options after last summer's disastrous season has raised the stakes by openly calling for a halt. Respected Japanese consumer advocate Hisa Anan rejected any scientific need to kill whales.
''Research whaling has been conducted for more than 20 years now,'' Ms Anan told the ABC through an interpreter in Tokyo. ''think they've gathered enough scientific data and even if they want more, they can conduct non-lethal research.''
The committee's majority want to continue with the hunt, according to Japanese media reports, but like Ms Anan they are worried about the threat posed by Sea Shepherd.
The mass circulation daily newspaper, Yomiuri Shimbun, said the majority found: ''Research whaling is justified on the basis of an international treaty. It should be continued without yielding to heinous interference.''
Last summer the whaling fleet was forced out of the Southern Ocean after its hunt was restricted by Sea Shepherd harassment.
The Institute of Cetacean Research said its crews were exhausted by the pursuit, which left them with a catch of 172 whales out of a potential 985.An unnamed Fisheries Agency official said that the prospects of returning were ''extremely gloomy,'' although the government has since stressed that its official policy is unchanged.
Extra pressure is coming from financial losses. The leading business newspaper, Nikkei, said: ''Japanese scientific whaling costs over 3 billion yen ($A35 million) every time, and its deficit is becoming a serious problem.''
Long-term observers of Japanese whaling were unconvinced the powerful agency would be overruled.
''I'm going to give them every chance to reconsider,'' said Mick McIntyre of the group Whales Alive. ''But I'm under no illusions that it's decided.''
Sea Shepherd's leader Paul Watson told the Herald all three of the group's ships would be positioned in Sydney and Fremantle in October.
''We are also looking for a fourth ship," he said. "If they return we will be ready to engage them again.''
Last season, the fleet operated south-east of New Zealand, but if it was to return next summer, it would be the turn of waters south of Australia, meaning closer involvement by the federal government in search and rescue, or monitoring of the fleets.