The opposition has called on the federal government to send a Customs vessel to the Southern Ocean to monitor the annual whale hunt.

Environment spokesman Greg Hunt on Monday wrote to Prime Minister Julia Gillard saying it was vital an Australian vessel be present in case of any clashes between Japanese whalers and the anti-hunt group Sea Shepherd.

"There is a real risk of conflict or collision causing injury, death or a major environmental spill in the event of a sinking," Mr Hunt said.

"I therefore call on you to dispatch the Customs vessel immediately before it becomes to late."

Mr Hunt says the stakes are high given Sea Shepard's "zero tolerance" campaign to prevent the death of any whale. He previously wrote to Ms Gillard about the issue on December 11.

Last week, Australia warned Japanese whaling vessels it won't tolerate protesters being threatened.

In a joint statement on Friday the Australian, US, New Zealand and Netherlands governments urged responsible behaviour from whalers and protesters and condemned "any actions that imperil human life at sea".

The call came after a US appeals court issued an injunction ordering Sea Shepherd and its head Paul Watson not to physically attack or endanger the whaling ships.

The protest ship must remain at least 450 metres from them at all times, the court ruled.

The order was sought by the Institute of Cetacean Research (ICR), which undertakes the Japanese government's whaling programme through a loophole in International Whaling Commission rules that allows whales to be killed for research.

The two sides have previously clashed, with protesters throwing glass bottles containing paint or butyric acid at the whaling ships, and the whalers responding with water cannons.

A resolution passed by the International Maritime Organisation in 2010 compels whaling vessels to ensure the safety of protesters during demonstrations, rallies or confrontations on the high seas.

Australia remains resolutely opposed to commercial whaling, including so-called "scientific" whaling, and has expressed concern about hunting activities in the Southern Ocean Whale Sanctuary.


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