Sea Shepherd encounters Japanese whalers at start of summer season

It has just turned winter in the Northern Hemisphere, which means that it is now summer in the Southern Hemisphere. The Japanese whaling fleet has entered the Southern Ocean to kill up to a self-designated quota of 333 minke whales, and Sea Shepherd has given chase.

Ocean Warrior, Sea Shepherd's newest ship, moving beyond pack ice in the Southern Ocean. Photo: Sea Shepherd Global/Simon Ager
Ocean Warrior, Sea Shepherd’s newest ship, moving beyond pack ice in the Southern Ocean.
Photo: Sea Shepherd Global/Simon Ager

We have heard the story before, and many of us have watched the drama play out during six seasons of the TV series “Whale Wars” on Animal Planet. This year, Sea Shepherd hopes to have an advantage with a ship declared to be faster than the Japanese whaling vessels, as I explained in Water Ways at the end of August.

On Dec. 3, the Sea Shepherd vessel Steve Irwin left Melbourne, Australia, for the Southern Ocean for its 11th campaign against the whalers. The Steve Irwin was followed a day later by the new ship, Ocean Warrior. Yesterday, the Ocean Warrior located one of the Japanese harpoon vessels, the Yushin Maru, inside the Southern Ocean Whale Sanctuary, according to Capt. Adam Meyerson, the skipper of the Ocean Warrior.

“The crews of the Ocean Warrior and the MV Steve Irwin have been battling through thick fog and ice to protect the whales in the Australian whale sanctuary,” Meyerson said in a news release. “The Yushin Maru was hiding behind an iceberg and came out on a collision course.

“Finding one of the hunter-killer ships hiding behind an iceberg in a thick fog means that the rest of the fleet is nearby,” he added. “We all hope to have whaling in the Southern Ocean shut down by Christmas.”

The news release quoted Peter Whish-Wilson of the Australian Greens Party, who said it was a shame that the whales were getting more protection from the foggy weather than from the Australian government.

This is the second time the whalers have gone to sea since the International Court of Justice ruled in 2014 that Japanese whaling operations were not a scientific endeavor. The International Whaling Commission maintains a ban on most whaling, but the Japanese government claims an exemption for scientific purposes. After the court ruling, the Japanese government amended its whaling plan to make it more scientific, but the plan still has received no formal acknowledgement.

“Australia won the International Court of Justice case against Japan, but unfortunately the (Australian) government put trade deals ahead of whales and removed all diplomatic pressure,” Whish-Wilson said in an earlier news release. “The Japanese whaling fleet might be able to escape and outrun the international courts but it won’t escape Sea Shepherd.”

Ted O’Connor, a reporter for the Australian Broadcast Company, describes the history of the conflict and quotes an expert in international law regarding the option of taking Japan to the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea.

The two Sea Shepherd vessels are carrying about 50 crew members from eight different countries, including Australia, Canada and the United States.

Last year at this time, Sea Shepherd was not very successful with its goal of disrupting Japanese whaling, in part because two of the group’s ships were engaged in a separate battle against poachers of Antarctic toothfish. In March, Capt. Paul Watson, founder of Sea Shepherd, declared victory in that campaign, called Operation Ice Fish.

In that effort, the Sea Shepherd ship Bob Barker pursued the outlaw ship Thunder for 110 days, according to Watson’s account. The chase ended off the coast of Africa when the captain scuttled the vessel to hide evidence of illegal fishing. Meanwhile, the crew of another Sea Shepherd vessel, Sam Simon, pulled in a 45-mile-long gillnet that had been used in the illegal fishing operation. The captain of the Thunder and two officers were later found guilty of sinking their ship and falsifying papers.

Operation Ice Fish is one of several stories recounted in Animal Planet’s six-part series, “Ocean Warriors,” about confrontation and conservation on the high seas. Other stories include a conservation biologist trying to save coral reefs from blast-fishing in Tanzania, Greenpeace trying to put a halt to illegal shark fishing, an environmental journalist documenting a devastating poaching operation in Thailand, and vigilantes uncovering a human-trafficking network dealing in fishing slaves.

In the first episode of “Ocean Warriors,” Captain Peter Hammarstedt, skipper of the Bob Barker, gave a pep talk to his new crew.

“Welcome to the Shadowlands,” Hammarstedt said. “We are now in the most remote fishing grounds in the world. We’re defending an Arctic toothfish. These are vulnerable fish populations that are being targeted by six illegal operators.

“These aren’t poachers backed by government like the Japanese whaling fleet. These are criminal operations that earn millions. It’s possible that they’re armed, and I have no doubt that they’ll be willing to use violence to keep us from intervening.”

Among the numerous executive producers involved in the production are Robert Redford and Paul Allen.

The series ran this month on Animal Planet and full episodes can be recalled via the Animal Planet website, or from websites featuring TV shows.

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