Did Japan Just Win the Whale Wars?

Sea Shepherd agrees to stop harassing Japanese whale hunters, but the activists say their compatriots will continue fighting the annual slaughter in the Southern Ocean.
(Photo: Greg Wood/AFP/Getty Images)
Aug 31, 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 whale wars are over.

Or are they?

Each year, the international Sea Shepherd movement dispatches vessels to harass Japanese ships hunting whales in the Southern Ocean. Using acid-filled bottles, smoke bombs, lasers, and metal-reinforced rope to damage propellers and rudders, Sea Shepherd activists aim to stop the slaughter conducted by Japan’s Institute of Cetacean Research in violation of international whaling regulations.

But last week, the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, the international coalition’s U.S. branch, and its founder, Paul Watson, settled a five-year legal battle in federal court with the ICR and Kyodo Senpaku Kaisha, the company that furnishes whaling vessels and crews. Sea Shepherd USA agreed to a permanent injunction that bars the group from attacking or endangering whaling vessels or approaching any whalers closer than 1,500 feet.

The settlement also prohibits Sea Shepherd USA from providing money or property to anyone, including other Sea Shepherd entities, to support the confrontations. Sea Shepherd USA has a long history of battling Japanese whalers—in court and in the icy Southern Ocean. From 2005 until 2012, Watson and his group sent ships to take part in the dangerous high-seas dramas that captivated audiences in the Animal Planet reality series Whale Wars and, according to the Sea Shepherd, saved the lives of 3,651 whales.

A temporary injunction against the U.S. group was first imposed by a U.S. federal judge in 2012. In 2015, Sea Shepherd agreed to pay the whalers $2.6 million for violating that injunction.

As part of the settlement, Sea Shepherd will receive compensation from the whaling operators for a 2010 incident in which a Sea Shepherd–affiliated powerboat, the Ady Gil, was rammed and sunk by a Japanese whaling vessel.

But Sea Shepherd contends that there is nothing in the permanent injunction to prevent other Sea Shepherd groups from continuing the harassment, as long as they are not acting “in concert” with the U.S. group.

“We are independent and separate entities, and people in Australia and Europe are quite offended that the U.S. would presume to have any jurisdiction over that,” Watson said. “These are Dutch-registered ships owned by a European entity in Australian waters going after Japanese fishermen. What possible jurisdiction could they have? It only covers Sea Shepherd USA’s involvement.”

The U.S. group’s general counsel, Peter Rysman, concurred with that interpretation.

“We will not operate a campaign in the Southern Ocean, nor will we cooperate or encourage or facilitate in any campaign by the other Sea Shepherd entities,” Rysman said. “If we were to act in concert with them, we would be found in contempt of the injunction. That’s why we won’t.”

RELATED: Japanese Hunters Evade Sea Shepherd, Kill Hundreds of Whales

An attorney for the whaling operators declined to speak on the record.

But a U.S.-based spokesman for the Institute of Cetacean Research, Gavin Carter, suggested that any Sea Shepherd group might still be in legal jeopardy if it harasses the whalers.

“It puts the ICR in a strong legal position, and it has achieved the objective to ensure safety at sea, not just for the Japanese vessels and crew but also the crews on the other vessels,” Carter said.

“I think that if Sea Shepherd and its affiliates do break their injunction,” he added, “they are taking a substantial risk that could lead to significant penalties, which would depend on the circumstances.”

Jeff Hansen, managing director of Sea Shepherd Australia, vowed to take on the whalers when they head out in December to kill up to 333 minke whales.

“We are not concerned about the U.S. court settlement as it does not have any effect on Australian law,” Hansen said in a statement.

On Tuesday, Sea Shepherd Global announced it was adding a high-speed patrol vessel to its fleet, the Ocean Warrior, which it says will be able to outrun Japanese whaling ships for the first time. “Speed can be the deciding factor when saving the lives of whales,” Alex Cornelissen, the group’s chief executive, said in a statement.

Last November, the Federal Court of Australia fined Kyodo Senpaku Kaisha $711,000 for violating a 2008 injunction against whaling in the Australian Antarctic whale sanctuary.

It was yet another blow to Japan’s effort to continue the hunt.

The international community has excoriated Japan for authorizing the whaling, which the country claims is conducted purely for “scientific research.”

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.

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

Japan agreed to conduct only nonlethal research in the 2014–15 season. But this season, the fleet returned to port with 333 minke whales, and it plans to take the same number annually for the next 11 years.