Japanese Whalers Set to Hunt Unimpeded in the Southern Ocean?

Jan 10, 2013 by

Japanese Whalers Set to Hunt Unimpeded in the Southern Ocean?

The commercial whaling moratorium was introduced in 1982 by the International Whaling Commission, finally ending the hunts that pushed many species of whale to the edge of extinction. However, Japan lodged an official objection to the move before withdrawing it in 1987. Under the Packwood-Magnuson Amendment, the United States threatened to limit Japan’s fishing quota in its territorial waters, leaving the Japanese with little option other than compliance.

Since then however, Japan has launched a program of scientific whaling for research purposes. Officially, the aim of this program is establishing the size and dynamics of whale populations, primarily in Antarctica. Several national governments including Australia have been supported by anti-whaling organisations such as Greenpeace and Sea Shepherd in their claim that this ‘research’ is a cover for the banned practice of commercial whaling.

They have also claimed that the samples can be acquired by non-lethal means while the amount of whales killed is excessively large. The total amount of whales targeted by the research vessels varies from year to year, but in 2010, a goal of 935 was set. As in previous years, the scientific hunt was interrupted by Sea Shepherd, an environmental organisation labelled “eco-terrorists” by the Japanese. As a result, only 506 whales were killed in the Antarctic. This is a huge reduction in the annual haul when compared to previous years – statistics show that Japan killed 1,004 whales in 2009 and 912 in 2008.

However, it has now emerged that Sea Shepherd’s controversial founder and executive director, Paul Watson, has resigned from the organisation as a result of a US federal court injunction against him and the activities of his group. Aggressive clashes between Sea Shepherd vessels and the Japanese whaling fleet have occurred frequently over the past few years, causing immense controversy. Both sides accuse each other of ramming vessels and throwing projectiles onto each other’s decks. Japanese whaling vessels have alleged that butyric acid was thrown at them by the activists, while Paul Watson claims to have been shot in the chest by the Japanese. He was wearing a bullet-proof vest at the time.

CNN has reported on the details of the injunction: “Last month, the Japanese research foundation Institute of Cetacean Research and the Japanese firm Kyodo Senpaku Kaisha Ltd. secured a U.S. District Court injunction against Watson and his Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, according to the institute’s website. The injunction prohibits Watson and his group from coming within 500 yards of the plaintiffs on the open sea, according to a copy of the court document on the institute’s website”.

So, does this prevent Sea Shepherd from interfering with Japanese scientific whaling activities? Online conservation discussion forums quickly became filled with raging debate. Most members seemed to come to the conclusion that a US federal injunction would be impossible to enforce upon foreign registered vessels in international waters, while Watson was quick to proclaim his astonishment that a US court was claiming jurisdiction over non-US ships.

Former Australian Greens leader, Bob Brown, took over leadership of Sea Shepherd following Watson’s resignation and is set to direct future activism alongside Australian director Jeff Hansen. Current board member Marnie Gaede will take over the position of Sea Shepherd’s president in the US. Without Watson at the helm, it has emerged that the organisation still intends to disrupt this year’s Japanese hunt in the Southern Ocean, though Sea Shepherd remained quiet about its tactics, given the legal restrictions involved.

Three Sea Shepherd vessels – the Steve Irwin, Brigitte Bardot and Bob Barker recently left New Zealand en route to the Southern Ocean. A new ship named the Sam Simon is set to leave the Tasmanian port city of Hobart in the next few days and link up with the other vessels off the Antarctic coast. The story behind the acquisition of the Sam Simon is intriguing. The 56-metre long ship was purchased for $2 million through a disguised US company from the Japanese government. It was obtained from a berth right next to the whaling fleet in Japan.

Throughout the sale process, the Japanese government remained completely unaware that the US company they were dealing with was actually their arch nemesis, Sea Shepherd. It was christened Sam Simon, after the one of the founders of The Simpsons, a major benefactor who donated the ship’s purchase price. It should have the speed to keep pace with the whaling fleet and is strengthened against ice, ensuring it can follow whaling vessels anywhere in the Southern Ocean. In a similar fashion to the harpoon vessels, the word ‘research’, now adorns the sides of the Sam Simon, a psychological reminder for the whalers of the ship’s Japanese government origins.

As impressive as the Sam Simon sounds, all observers are asking themselves if Sea Shepherd will be able to influence the whaling fleet at all, considering that they must keep a 500 yard distance from the Japanese ships at all times. Paul Watson is currently onboard the Steve Irwin but is no longer the captain. After confirming his resignation, he has stepped back from all organisational positions due to the legal action against him, and will merely act as an observer.

Will Sea Shepherd simply observe the whaling fleet this year, or will they carry out their traditional hard-hitting action? Legally, the Japanese research vessels should be free to carry out their activities unimpeded, yet the weakness of the American federal injunction could become apparent in international waters. Sea Shepherd has never been known for passive action while the whalers themselves tend to defend the hunt aggressively. For both the activists and the whalers, it is sure to prove an interesting campaign with more than the usual ramifications.

Imagenote: Customs and Border Protection Service, Commonwealth of Australia/Wikimedia/CC

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