"This is the first time in 20 years that we've had to cancel our research"
Takahide Naruko, Japan Fisheries Agency
The fleet had originally been scheduled to continue its hunt until the end of March, returning to Japan in mid-April.
"This is the first time in 20 years that we've had to cancel our research," said Takahide Naruko, the head of the Fisheries Agency's Far Seas Division.
"We are very disappointed." Naruko said he hoped the ship would be repaired in time for its next hunt in the Pacific northwest in May.
Japan, which is pushing for a return to "managed" commercial whaling, says its annual whale hunt is carried out for research purposes.
It says the hunt provides crucial scientific data for the International Whaling Commission - which sanctions the annual hunts - on populations, feeding habits and distribution of the whales in the seas near Antarctica.
The research is funded by the sale of whale meat captured in the hunt, but environmental groups such as Greenpeace argue that research can be carried out without killing the whales.
|Environmental groups say research can be|
carried out without killing whales [Greenpeace]
The fleet had been targeting a catch of 860 whales, but officials say they only killed 505 minke whales and 3 fin whales before the fire on the Nisshin Maru brought an end to the hunt.
The fire has been a major embarrassment for Japan, and sparked a row with the New Zealand government which said the ship, carrying 1.3 million litres of fuel oil, posed a huge risk to the pristine Antarctic environment.
A Greenpeace vessel, in the area to protest the hunts, offered to tow the crippled ship into calmer seas, but the whalers declined the offer.
The announcement that the fleet was abandoning the hunt came as Japan's Institute of Cetacean Research (ICR), a partly government-funded body that oversees the whaling programme, hit out at the tactics of environmental activist group Sea Shepherd.
It said the group used its ship to ram Japanese vessels during the hunt, as part ofwhat it called acts of "spiteful and mindless terrorism."
It says the group also threw harmful chemical substances and smoke bombs and released ropes and nets to try to jam the ships' propellers.
"Such vicious and reckless actions by the Sea Shepherd not only violate the international agreements established in order to prohibit piracy and guarantee the safety of navigation, they are inexcusable criminal acts," said Hiroshi Hatanaka, head of the ICR.