Japanese Whalers Again Face Confrontation in Antarctic

The annual whale hunt season has arrived in the Southern Seas with the embarkation of the notorious Japanese whalers early this month, undeterred by the expected interception of the anti-whaling group- Sea Shepherd Australia (SSA).

The whale activists launched the 10th Antarctic Defense Campaign, dubbed “Operation Relentless, early this month. As in the past nine years or so, this season expects violent vessel clashes between the Japanese and the anti-whaling ”pirates” (referring to Sea Shepherd although the group rejects the misnomer.) Sea Shepherd claims itself to be defenders of the Southern Ocean and all life forms it contains.

Japanese whalers continue to reserve the right to hunt the animals for “scientific research” and sell the meat from the hunts despite a worldwide moratorium on commercial whaling although in fact the hunt has nothing to do with research and little to do with Japanese consumers. It appears to have more to do with a relatively small group of villages on the Japanese coast where whaling remains a livelihood.

The Japanese also hunt illegally in an International Whaling Commission designated sanctuary in the Antarctic. In 2011 and 2012, Japanese whalers took 445 animals, including minke, sperm, Brydes, sei and fin whales. Foreign governments have criticized Japan’s whale hunts in alleged violation of the International Whaling Commission’s ban, which it introduced in 1986. Although Tokyo defends its whaling, activists charge that the “research whaling” is a cover-up for commercial whaling. Tokyo also maintains that the practice of eating whale is part of Japanese culinary tradition, and therefore the whales are studied as part of a bid by its whaling research institute to prove their populations can sustain commercial whaling.

The question is why. Thousands of tons of whale meat remain unsold annually amid declining consumption at the same time the Japanese government approves annual subsidies to the whaling fleet of US$10 million a year, plus another US$20 million in funds in 2012 to aid the reconstruction of whale-hunting communities devastates by the March 2011 Fukushima Earthquake and tsunami.

Last year, the 5,000-tonne Motor Yacht Bob Barker was severely damaged when the 8,000-ton Nisshin Maru collided with it. The two groups clashed violently in exchanges that have seen stink bombs thrown at Japanese crew and water jets trained on protesters.

Sea Shepherd’s “Operation Zero Tolerance” campaign was able to thwart Japanese efforts from catching marine mammals, the organization said, in a hunt that fell to a record low of 103 Antarctic minke whales in the last season –saving the lives of 932 whales.

Amid international outcry, two Japanese whaling ships and a surveillance vessel left on Dec.8 for the annual hunt in the Antarctic Sea. The three ships departed from the western port of Shimonoseki to join other ships to hunt up to 935 Antarctic minke whales and up to 50 fin whales through March, The Kyodo News reported.

The news agency said the Fisheries Agency had kept secret the departure date of the whaling fleet as a precaution against Sea Shepherd.

In Australia, three ships left Williamstown in Victoria and Hobart Port in Tasmania: The Steve Irwin,The Sam Simon, and The Bob Barker departed to sail southward to confront the whalers. In the nine previous defense campaigns, Sea Shepherd said it has saved more than 4,500 protected whales from illegal slaughter.

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My Bob Barker docks at Docklands in Melbourne for public viewing. Photo from R. Yoon/The Green Journal

Sea Shepherd managing director Jeff Hansen said the crew on the ships carry with them the hope, aspirations, and expectations of people from across the world who hope to see the end to the annual slaughter.

Captain of The Bob Barker Peter Hammarstedt of Sweden also stated the Japanese whale poaching fleet heading to the south is an offencs to an international community waiting on the ruling of the International Court of Justice in The Hague. “Sea Shepherd will now, again, head south as the only authority acting to restore law and order to the Southern Ocean Whale Sanctuary,” the captain added.

Captain of The Steve Irwin, Siddarth Chakravarty of India, expects that within a week, he and his crew will be with the whales and will not return until peace has been restored in the Southern Ocean Whale Sanctuary.

This year, more than 100 volunteers from 24 countries around the world join Operation Relentless to guard the gates of the southern sanctuary and to uphold the 1986 ban on commercial whaling.

The Sea Shepherd Global Director Alex Cornelissen of Netherlands said, “Like all poachers we encounter in our global campaigns, we will deal with the whalers the same way we always do: Relentlessly.”

(Rowena Dela Rosa Yoon blogs at the Green Journal for Asian Correspondent, with which Asia Sentinel has a content-sharing agreement.)