Four Nations Tell Japan and Sea Shepherd to Chill Out on the High Seas as Whale Hunt Begins

Australia, the Netherlands, New Zealand, and the United States condemn whaling but warn the environmental group against confronting the Japanese.
(Photo: Paul Darrow/Reuters)
Jan 15, 2016· 2 MIN READ
David Kirby has been a professional journalist for 25 years. His third book, Death at Seaworld, was published in 2012.

The governments of four countries—Australia, the Netherlands, New Zealand, and the United States—have fired a verbal warning shot across the bows of Japanese whaling vessels and Sea Shepherd Conservation Society ships that protest whale hunting on the high seas.

The four governments this week issued a joint statement saying they oppose commercial whaling but also “condemn any actions at sea that may cause injury, loss of human life or damage to property or the marine environment during Southern Ocean whaling operations in 2016.”

Sea Shepherd—which sends ships to the Southern Ocean to monitor and often harass Japanese whaling vessels—was not mentioned by name. But the militant environmental group was clearly a target of the warning.

“We respect the right to freedom of expression, including through peaceful protests on the high seas, when protests are conducted lawfully and without violence,” the statement said. “However, we unreservedly condemn dangerous, reckless or unlawful behavior by all participants on all sides.”

“We are prepared to respond to unlawful activity in accordance with relevant international and domestic laws,” they added.

Jeff Hansen, managing director of Sea Shepherd Australia, took issue with the joint statement.

“In Sea Shepherd’s 10 Antarctic whale defense campaigns we have never caused a serious injury on either side, yet we have directly saved the lives of over 5,000 whales,” Hansen said in an email.

He added that the Australian government failed to deliver on a 2013 campaign promise to dispatch a customs vessel to the Southern Ocean to “provide a clear signal that the Australian people don’t support whaling.”

“The Australian and New Zealand governments should be commended for taking Japan to the International Court of Justice,” he said. “However, what is the point of the ruling if no one is going to enforce it?”

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Susan Richards, a spokesperson for the Australian Embassy in Washington, D.C., did not say how that country might respond to unlawful activity. “The government does not comment on operational matters,” she said in an email.

A U.S. State Department official, who asked not to be identified, likewise declined to specify what actions might be taken against high-seas offenders.

“We will not speculate on the lawfulness of particular activities or government responses as each situation must be assessed on its own merits,” the official said in an email.

The international community has roundly criticized Japan for its whaling program, which the country claims is conducted for “scientific research,” even though whale meat from the hunts is sold on the open market.

In March 2014, the International Court of Justice ruled that the country’s whaling program was not scientific and violated a 1986 commercial whaling moratorium.

Japan agreed to conduct only nonlethal research in the 2014–15 season. But last November, it submitted a new proposal to the International Whaling Commission to harpoon 330 minke whales annually for 12 years.

Last April, an expert panel appointed by the IWC determined that Japan’s whaling program was not scientifically based, adding that whale research can be conducted through nonlethal means.

“Our governments remain resolutely opposed to commercial whaling, in particular in the Southern Ocean Whale Sanctuary established by the International Whaling Commission,” Tuesday’s joint statement said. “We do not believe Japan has sufficiently demonstrated that it has given due regard to the guidance found in the 2014 International Court of Justice judgment.”

The Japanese Embassy in Washington issued a statement on Thursday saying that Japan’s whale program is “in line with international laws including the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling.”

“Violent harassment can lead to tragic consequences for the crew of the vessels as well as others involved, which is, regardless of the context, not acceptable,” the statement added. “We are hoping to discuss with relevant countries what measures should be taken to prevent this from happening.”

There have been a number of clashes between Sea Shepherd and whalers in the Southern Ocean over the past several years.

In January 2010, the Japanese security vessel Shonan Maru 2 collided with a Sea Shepherd–affiliated ship, the Ady Gil, slicing off the nose of that ship, which sank hours later.

Maritime New Zealand, a government safety agency, said the captains of both ships were to blame for the incident.

Sea Shepherd, meanwhile, has been accused of engaging in dangerous practices while trying to stop Japanese ships from killing whales.

Sea Shepherd last year agreed to pay $2.6 million to Japan’s Institute of Cetacean Research as part of a settlement to resolve a long-standing legal battle over the anti-whaling group’s tactics, which include throwing smoke bombs at Japanese whaling ships and using metal-reinforced ropes to damage propellers and rudders.