Sea change in anti-whaling activism as Sea Shepherd withdraws from ‘whale wars’

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The Sea Shepherd Conservation Society has announced that it will no longer send ships to confront Japanese whalers on the Southern Ocean.

In a statement published August 27th, Sea Shepherd founder Paul Watson explained that his group is no longer able to combat whaling vessels directly, as they have done since 2005, due to new surveillance technology used by whalers to track and avoid Sea Shepherd’s ships. Japanese ships successfully met their annual quota of 333 kills each of the past two whaling seasons. While Sea Shepherd managed to obtain photographic evidence of the hunts, including butchering of pregnant females, it was unable to approach close enough to physically intervene at all during the 2016-2017 season.

Minke whale, the main target species for Japan’s whale hunt. Credit Len2040, Flickr, CC BY-ND 2.0

In 2014, the United Nations’ International Court of Justice ruled that Japan’s whale hunt was unscientific and therefore illegal, as per the rules of the International Whaling Commission. The Commission, to which Japan is a signatory, allows killing for “scientific research” but has banned commercial whaling since 1985. Rather than give up whaling entirely, Japan developed a new whaling program instead, but suspended the hunt for a full year and reduced its annual quota from 1,065 whales per year to 333.

Claiming the court ruling and reduced quota as victories for Sea Shepherd, Watson declared his organization’s legacy a success:

“The Japanese whalers have been exposed, humiliated and most importantly have been denied thousands of lives that we have spared from their deadly harpoons. Thousands of whales are now swimming and reproducing that would now be dead if not for our interventions.”

Reactions to Sea Shepherd’s withdrawal from direct combat have been mixed, with some whale protection advocates praising Sea Shepherd’s history of activism and others criticizing the organization’s aggressive methods as counterproductive.

On Wednesday, September 6th, the Australian Senate passed a motion officially recognizing Sea Shepherd for its anti-whaling campaigns. Introducing the motion in front of Parliament, Greens senator Peter Whish-Wilson of Tasmania said:

“I would like to acknowledge the brave conservationists and activists from all around the world who have joined Sea Shepherd and have gone to the Southern Ocean and literally stopped thousands of whales being killed by illegal Japanese whaling. This motion today recognizes the fact that Sea Shepherd has spent 13 years in the Southern Ocean protecting whales, [and]  they have been very successful in their campaign.”

However, among activists working to combat whaling from within Japan, association with Sea Shepherd is largely seen as a hindrance rather than a help. The Iruka & Kujira Action Network (IKAN) is a Japanese organization that campaigns against whale and dolphin hunting. Writing to Animal People, IKAN head Nanami Kurasawa spoke critically of Sea Shepherd’s impact:

“We understand that foreign organizations have every right to protest against Japan’s research whaling activities… We have no objection to their claim that research whaling operations are illegal. However, we do have some concerns on the impact of Sea Shepherd activities… on the general public. Sea Shepherd’s activities have been described as ‘environmental terrorism’ or ‘eco-terrorism’ and now all anti-whaling campaigns are seen in the same way, making it more difficult for us to gain support domestically. Some citizens groups criticize anti-whaling activities, and others tend to avoid voicing their opinion in this area.”

Surveys show that while only a small number of Japanese people regularly eat whale meat, a much larger percentage support the annual whale hunt, largely on the grounds that it is “traditional” to Japanese culture. Sea Shepherd regularly employs nationalistic rhetoric in its campaigns, including references to World War II, when Japan was an enemy to Australia, the United States, and other Western countries. Many commentators argue that such rhetoric, coupled with Sea Shepherd’s physical attacks on Japanese vessels, have caused more Japanese to associate whaling with national identity, therefore increasing domestic support for the practice.

Whale meat for sale in Tokyo fish market. Credit Kent Wang, Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0

In June, the Japanese parliament passed a new law in support of whaling. Its provisions include increased funding for the current “scientific” whaling program, security escorts to protect whaling vessels, restrictions on foreign anti-whaling activists entering the country, and a declaration of intent to resume full commercial whaling.

IKAN, along with other Japanese animal protection and environmental groups, campaigned against the bill, and Kurasawa ascribes the blame for its passage partly to Sea Shepherd:

“Plans for countermeasures against Sea Shepherd were included in the bill, such as providing support for training programs against Sea Shepherd and sending government officials to the operations. … At the International Whaling Commission, Japan’s resolutions to condemn Sea Shepherd for their aggressive tactics and collisions with Japanese vessels gained support from many countries. We believe that this played a big role in making the continuance of Japan’s research whaling possible; the government now invests a large amount of public funds for whaling operations every year, under the pretext of countermeasures against Sea Shepherd activities.”

Kurasawa is hopeful that with Sea Shepherd’s withdrawal from direct action on the Southern Ocean, domestic anti-whaling activism will be able to make greater progress in the future, and that less militant international groups that have kept their distance from the issue will become involved again.

Anti-whaling protest held in Tokyo in 2013. Credit AMM Japan, fair use.

Paul Watson, for his part, maintains that while Sea Shepherd’s days of high sea combat are over, its role in the “whale wars” will continue:

“We will not be sending ships to the Southern Ocean this year, but we are not abandoning the Southern Ocean Whale Sanctuary. We need to cultivate the resources, the tactics and the ability to significantly shut down the illegal whaling operations of the Japanese whaling fleet. … We will never quit until the abomination of whaling is abolished forever by anyone, anywhere, for any reason.”

In the mean time, national governments show signs of assuming the mantle left by Sea Shepherd. In New Zealand, Green Party leader James Shaw has proposed sending the Navy to enforce international law against illegal whaling, and establishing a new marine mammal sanctuary off New Zealand’s coast. Australia’s recent Senate resolution calls on the government to send customs vessels to the Southern Ocean next whaling season to defend against Japanese incursion, as pledged by the Liberal government in 2013 but to date never acted on.


Featured image: whaling vessel hauling in dead whale as another sprays water cannons to deter Sea Shepherd boats. Credit John, CC BY-SA 2.0

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ANIMAL PEOPLE is an animal rights charitable organization dedicated to the principle that animals’ lives have intrinsic value apart from human interests. We believe there is an urgent need to cultivate human compassion for the other creatures with whom we share the earth. To that end, ANIMAL PEOPLE seeks to further animal advocacy by providing a global forum in which people who care about animals can speak and be heard. Click to see author's profile.

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