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War of the whales

Too close for comfort: the Ady Gil approaches the Japanese whaling vessel Shonan Maru 2.

Anti-whale-hunting activists who spent January and February in the Antarctic claim they are at war with the Japanese whaling fleet. Marine activist group the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society describe their recent campaign to stop the whalers as ‘astoundingly effective’. But it came at a cost: a vessel almost cut in half, lives put at risk and the arrest of one of their number.

It was the sixth voyage by the conservation group to the 50 million km2 South Ocean Whale Sanctuary. Their aim was to prevent Japanese whalers catching hundreds of minke whales, under a permit issued by the Japanese Government, for scientific research.

Japan’s annual Antarctic catch is allowed as an exception to the International Whaling Commission (IWC)’s 1986 ban on commercial whaling. The ban came about following international reports in the 1970s warning of the possible extinction of whales; but despite a strong anti-whaling sentiment among many nations, major objections to the moratorium on commercial whaling have continued, especially from countries with a whaling tradition such as Norway, Iceland and, most significantly, Japan.

Japan maintains that its current annual catch is sustainable and necessary for scientific study and management of whale stocks. Opponents consider the Japanese research programme to be unnecessary at best and a thinly disguised commercial whaling operation at worst.

It was a desire to prevent the annual hunt that resulted in Sea Shepherd mounting this year’s whale defence campaign, ‘Operation Waltzing Matilda’. In the past, collisions have occasionally occurred. But this season, a collision between the group’s fast interceptor boat, the Ady Gil, and the Japanese harpoon vessel, Shonan Maru 2, resulted in major damage to the activists’ vessel.

Sea Shepherd says the hi-tech trimaran was ‘deliberately rammed and cut in half’. The Institute of Cetacean Research (ICR), the non-profit Japanese organization that conducts the hunt, saw things differently: ‘The obstructionist activities of Sea Shepherd threaten the lives and property of those involved in our research, are very dangerous and cannot be forgiven.’

The sinking of the trimaran prompted its captain, New Zealand activist Peter Bethune, to board one of the Japanese ships with the aim of making a citizen’s arrest of the ship’s captain. He also planned to hand over a bill for $1.5 million for the destruction of his ship.

Peter Bethune was seized and taken into custody, which, claims Sea Shepherd, makes him the first New Zealander to be taken as a prisoner of war from the Southern Ocean to Japan. On arrival there he was met by protesters denouncing him as a terrorist. He has been charged with vessel invasion.

A clear message for activist Peter Bethune.

Issei Kato / Reuters

Meanwhile, another stage in the struggle to protect whales is unfolding. The next meeting of the IWC in June will consider a limited return to commercial whaling. The proposal would allow Japan, Norway and Iceland to hunt whales openly, but aims to reduce the total catch over the next 10 years. Australia wants whaling to be phased out in five years but New Zealand is among those seeking
a compromise.

Its representative to the IWC, Sir Geoffrey Palmer, says that ‘some whales may need to be killed in order to save others’. But Karli Thomas, Greenpeace New Zealand’s Oceans Campaigner, accuses her Government of abandoning the whales, arguing that they will be ‘undoing decades of whale conservation’.

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