Tokyo (CNN) -- Japan said Tuesday that it would hand over to Australian authorities three Australian anti-whaling activists being held aboard a Japanese vessel, but that it would press on with its annual whale hunt in the seas near Antarctica.
The activists had illegally boarded the ship, a patrol vessel supporting Japan's whaling mission in Antarctic waters, to protest the hunting of the giant marine mammals in the area.
The three men will be released without charge after being questioned by Japan's Coast Guard, an official at the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs said Tuesday. The official declined to be identified as is customary in Japan.
"They have not been violent after getting on board and had no record of joining past destructive actions by Sea Shepherd," the official said, referring to the anti-whaling group that has clashed several times with the Japanese fleet.
He said the Japanese whaling fleet needed the patrol boat to continue with its hunt.
Australia engaged in diplomatic discussions with Japan to ensure the well-being and safety of the three men, the Australian attorney-general, Nicola Roxon, said Monday.
She said that while Australia steadfastly opposes Japan's whale hunt, the incident did not occur in Australian territorial waters, meaning that Australian law did not automatically apply to the case.
Japan annually hunts whales despite a worldwide moratorium, utilizing a loophole in the law that allows for killing the mammals for scientific research.
Each year, environmental groups like Sea Shepherd face off with Japan's hunters in a high seas drama that has led to collisions of ships, the detaining of activists and smoke bombs fired back and forth between the groups.
Japan has lodged a protest with the Australian government through diplomatic channels, asking it to prevent such boardings in the future, the Japanese foreign ministry official said Tuesday.
Video footage released by Sea Shepherd showed the three men, from the environmental group Forest Rescue Australia, boarding the Japanese vessel from a small boat on Sunday.
Sea Shepherd had described the three activists -- Geoffrey Owen Tuxworth, 47, Simon Peterffy, 44, and Glen Pendlebury, 27 -- as "prisoners." The organization said the men boarded the vessel to force Japan's fleet to stop hunting whales.
This is the third time activists have boarded ships involved in the Japanese whaling fleet.
In 2008, two Sea Shepherd activists sneaked aboard a Japanese vessel. They were released back to the anti-whaling group.
In 2010, Pete Bethune, a New Zealander, also boarded the Shonan Maru #2.
Bethune was arrested, taken back to Japan, and tried in a Tokyo court. He spent five months in prison and was released on a two-year suspended sentence.
CNN's Kyung Lah contributed to this report.