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As whaling resumes, Sea Shepherd faces legal issues

January 4th, 2013 by cdunagan

Well, it’s that time of year again. The Japanese whaling fleet is headed toward the Antarctic to kill whales, and Sea Shepherd Conservation Society is waiting with an increased armada to frustrate the whaling effort.

The level of intrigue has increased substantially this year, as Capt. Paul Watson of Sea Shepherd has become an international fugitive and Sea Shepherd finds itself under a U.S. court order to maintain a safe distance from the Japanese fleet.

Even the television show “Whale Wars” could be different this year, as Sea Shepherd has hired its own camera crew. That move has left network executives at Animal Planet somewhat uncertain about the upcoming sixth season of the show.

SSS Sam Simon, the newest vessel in the Sea Shepherd fleet.Photo courtesy of Sea Shepherd

SSS Sam Simon, the newest vessel in the Sea Shepherd fleet. / Photo courtesy of Sea Shepherd

Japan’s Kyodo News reported that the Japanese “research whaling fleet” left the Shimonoseki Port in Western Japan last Friday. The Japan Times reported that the Japanese Fisheries Agency has authorized a take of up to 935 minke whales and 50 fin whales this year.

Sea Shepherd crews departed for the Southern Ocean in mid-December with four vessels, including the latest addition — the 184-foot SSS Sam Simon, a former Japanese government vessel once used for meteorological research. The formidable ship, which has a hull strengthened for ice, was purchased for Sea Shepherd by the co-creator of “The Simpsons.” Read more in Sea Shepherd’s news release.

Meanwhile, Sea Shepherd’s leader, Paul Watson, was arrested in Frankfort, Germany, last May on charges relating to an incident in Central America in 2002. He was released on bail but failed to check in the following month, as required by conditions of his release. Siobhan Dowling reported on the incident for The Guardian.

In December, Paul told Associated Press reporter Manuel Valdes that he wanted to stay at sea. He contends that the Costa Rican government was pressured by Japan to seek his extradition.

“I want to stay in the ocean. I’m not going to be able to do that from some holding cell in Japan,” Watson, who now has no passport, was quoted as saying.

On Dec. 13, the U.S. State Department issued a joint statement with the governments of Australia, the Netherlands and New Zealand calling for vessels in the Southern Ocean to observe international collision-avoidance rules:

“We are deeply concerned that confrontations in the Southern Ocean will eventually lead to injury or loss of life among protestors, many of whom are nationals of our countries, and whaling crews…

“We remain resolute in our opposition to commercial whaling, including so-called ‘scientific’ whaling, in particular in the Southern Ocean Whale Sanctuary established by the International Whaling Commission, and are disappointed about the recent departure of the Japanese whaling fleet for the Southern Ocean.”

In a written commentary, Watson actually seemed encouraged by the joint statement:

“We at Sea Shepherd have no problem with this. We haven’t sustained any serious injury nor have we caused any injury at sea in 33 years and certainly not in the last six voyages to the Southern Ocean.

“What the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society welcomes, however, is the fact that the statement issued by the four nations clearly condemns the illegal whaling activities of the Japanese whaling fleet. This statement validates and encourages Sea Shepherd intervention during Operation No Compromise this year.”

But Sea Shepherd faced a new turn of events on Dec. 17, when the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals issued a preliminary injunction prohibiting Sea Shepherd — and Paul Watson specifically — from “physically attacking” the Japanese whaling fleet or from “navigating in a manner that is likely to endanger the safe navigation of any such vessel.”

The order (PDF 37 kb) prohibits Sea Shepherd from getting any closer than 500 yards to the Japanese ships. The injunction will remain in effect until a final ruling is issued by the U.S. District Court, which could come about the end of this year.

A well-written analysis of the hearing before the Court of Appeals was provided by June Williams of Courthouse News Service. An audio recording of the lively hearing is available from the Ninth Circuit’s website.

“It looks like the Japanese whaling fleet is ready to rumble,” Watson responded in a written commentary issued the same day the injunction was announced. He continued:

“It is a complex situation whereby a United States court is issuing an injunction against Dutch and Australian vessels carrying an international crew, operating out of Australia and New Zealand in international waters and the waters of the Australian Antarctic Economic Zone. In addition, the court has ignored the fact that the Japanese whalers are in contempt of a court order by the Australian Federal Court and the whaling takes place in the Southern Ocean Whale Sanctuary.

“We will defend these whales as we have for the last eight years – non-violently and legally.”

So now the stage is set for another confrontation in the Southern Ocean. As the whaling season goes on, we’ll get the usual conflicting news releases from Sea Shepherd and the Japanese whalers. But how the events are portrayed on the television program “Whale Wars” may be influenced by a change in film crew.

whale wars

Before the ships’ departure, Sea Shepherd advertised for its own film crew to replace an independent crew previously used by Animal Planet. Officials with the network confirmed to me that they do not have a film crew on board at this time.

Blogger Michael Destries reported that Sea Shepherd officials hired their own crew to provide “greater flexibility for distribution purposes.”

How this will play out for the show “Whale Wars” is yet to be seen, but Sea Shepherd apparently intends to provide footage to the show’s producers.

Animal Planet spokesman Brian Eley told me that the network plans to air a sixth season of “Whale Wars,” but the two parties are still working out some critical details. Animal Planet owns the name “Whale Wars,” the show’s format and everything that goes with it.

The program is important to both organizations. “Whale Wars” helped transform Animal Planet from a children’s channel to an adult network, and the program has served the goals of Sea Shepherd almost beyond belief.

Brian said it is important to Animal Planet to maintain editorial control over “Whale Wars” with a documentary format and a “neutral point of view.”

“Every year, there are certain things that they (Sea Shepherd officials) disagree with over how we portray them,” he said. “But we have a good relationship with them, and I think people like the show the way it is.”

Brian did not seem to think it was too late to get an independent film crew on board, which would be the preference of Animal Planet executives.

He concurred that this was a “banner year for legality” facing Sea Shepherd, but Animal Planet is not caught up in that drama. The network has been careful to simply document the group’s activities, he said, not influence what the group does or does not do.

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"In the end, we will conserve only what we love, we will love only what we understand, and we will understand only what we are taught."Baba Dioum, Senegalese conservationist

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