The Japanese whaling fleet has suspended its Antarctic Ocean hunt because of obstruction by Sea Shepherd Conservation Society vessels, a Fisheries Agency official said Wednesday.

Jiji Press reported government officials are considering having the fleet return home earlier than regular years amid the moves by the marine animal rights group.

“The Nisshin Maru (whaling fleet mother ship) has been chased by Sea Shepherd vessels since Feb. 10 and thus the fleet suspended whaling since then,” said Tatsuya Nakaoku of the Whaling Section of the Fisheries Agency’s Far Seas Fisheries Division. “We are considering several options (to deal with the current situation), but nothing has been decided.”

Sea Shepherd, which funds its operation with donations, including those from successful entrepreneurs and Hollywood stars, has been escalating its tactics against Japanese whalers in the Antarctic Ocean in recent years.

The fleet usually leaves Japan in November and comes back in March or April. This winter, however, it left Japan on Dec. 2, unusually late.

Greenpeace Japan, the local branch of the international conservation group, had predicted the duration of the hunt would be shortened because of falling profitability in whale meat sales and an increase in the frozen stockpile of such meat.

The stockpile stood at 5,093 tons, nearly a record level, in December. It has risen almost steadily from 1,453 tons in 1999.

Greenpeace Japan Secretary General Junichi Sato said: “The Japanese government blames the anti-whaling movement for the (possibility of) bringing the fleet home early.”

Japan has come under increased international pressure to cut down on whaling. The International Whaling Commission submitted a proposal in April for Japan to decrease its whaling quota in the Antarctic from the current 800 whales to about 200 in 10 years.

Japan caught 506 minke whales and a fin whale in the Antarctic Ocean in the 2009-2010 season, compared with 679 minke whales and a fin whale in the previous season and 551 minke whales in the season before that.

Australia in May launched legal action with the International Court of Justice at the Hague to stop Japan’s research whaling in the Antarctic.

Japan says its whaling program complies with Article 8 of the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling.

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