Whale wars heat up to boiling point
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Whale wars heat up to boiling point

The news that a vessel of the Japanese whaling fleet has deliberately rammed and sunk a small boat of the Sea Shepherd fleet in the open ocean will lift the whale wars to a whole new level.   It could well lead to serious harm to diplomatic and other relations between Australia and Japan. 

In looking at how things have come to this point, it is worthwhile outlining some background to public and government attitudes to the issue.  The tension and antagonism around the annual hunt by Japanese whalers in the Southern Ocean has been steadily increasing over a number of years. 

The previous conservative government in Australia adopted a strong anti-whaling stance – in line with the views of the vast majority of the Australian public – but was either unable or unwilling to do more to try to bring about a reduction in the number of whales being killed each year.  Given that at least some of the slaughtering takes place in waters which the Australian government had (self)declared as a Whale Sanctuary, the failure to prevent or even hinder the amount of whaling did little to assuage public concerns.

The Labor Party, then in opposition, echoed these frustrations and many people assumed that stronger action to halt or reduce or at least forcefully challenge the annual whale hunt would occur when the Labor Party came into government.  The usual diplomatic exchanges between Japanese and Australian governments, expressing their differing and incompatible views, continued to occur.  But both the previous and the present Australian governments avoided initiating any court or other legal challenges to the Japanese whalers, despite occasional hints that something along these lines might be done.  It had been left to some Australian based environment and animal protection groups to attempt to pursue court action, which had limited success – while Australia’s Federal court ruled it was illegal under Australia law for whales to be hunted in the Australian Whale Sanctuary, Japan (and many other countries) do not formally recognise Australia’s claim to Antartic territorial waters.  It is really only governments which can initiate legal action in the international arena, so non-government organisations cannot usually pursue actions under international law (not that it is guaranteed that the Australian government would actually win if they pursued such a path.)  

In short, very little if anything has changed in the two years since the change of government despite expectations to the contrary, and in this circumstance, public frustrations with perceived government inaction and/or impotence has continued to grow.  This has created a groundswell of support for the Sea Shepherd organisation, which is one of the most radical direct-action, legitimate environmental or animal protection groups in the world.  Whilst they clearly and continually oppose and avoid any form of direct violence or direct attempts to injure humans, the Sea Shepherd team do virtually everything else possible to directly confront, hinder and prevent whaling from taking place.

In other circumstances, such a confrontational approach would normally not attract much public support in Australia, which doesn’t have particularly strong or rigorous animal welfare laws.  While few people would publicly support cruelty to animals, animal protection activists are still usually treated as a fringe element by mainstream media and political parties, even when the cruelty they expose is not condoned.

However, a combination of very strong public support for the welfare of whales and sea mammals in general, the well highlighted and undeniable cruelty involved in killing whales, and a succession of national governments which have publicly supported anti-whaling views while being seen to do too little to stop it, has all helped help the uncompromising ‘Can Do’ attitude of the Sea Shepherd attract a lot of public support (though there are certainly some anti-whaling Australians who question their tactics).  Sea Shepherd even had the Honourable Ian Campbell, a former Environment Minister of the previous conservative government, join their board of advisors after he left politics prior to the last election.

The preparations on the side of both the Sea Shepherd and the Japanese whaling fleet have been greater than ever for this year’s hunt, with a record level of resources and capabilities being deployed.  The whalers deployed an extra security ship to track and hinder the Steve Irwin, Sea Shepherd’s main vessel.  News also recently surfaced that they hired Australian planes, deployed out of airports in the southern parts of Australia, to assist with tracking the Sea Shepherd ships.

For their part, Sea Shepherd had deployed a high tech, very high speed catamaran, the Ady Gil, and just today unveiled news that they had an additional former Norwegian whaling vessel (named the Bob Barker) which had travelled from a different direction to the Steve Irwin and just intercepted the Japanese whaling fleet. 

The news that Australians businesses have been involved in directly assisting the Japanese whaling efforts  has already led the Australian Greens party to announce that they will  introduce legislation making it illegal for any Australian assistance to be provided to whaling, including air or sea surveillance or communication facilities.  The fact that in previous years the Japanese whaling fleet had been able to use Australian ports had caused controversy, but no formal legal action.

Perhaps the same response would have occurred again this time, but in the light of this sinking of a small vessel of the Sea Shepherd fleet – which has been directly supported by many Australians – by a Japanese vessel, it will now be far less likely that actions can or will be avoided which will escalate the situation further.

UPDATE: In an extraordinary example of how deeply polarised the issue now is, a video of the Ady Gil getting rammed is being posted on YouTube – filmed from the Japanese vesselwith titles stating it shows the Ady Gil ‘attacking’ or ramming the Japanese vessel! As the following comments show, people can obviously view the same footage and see two completely different versions of events (myself included I suppose).  Certainly almost everyone sending a link to the footage around Twitter using the Sea Shepherd hashtag seem to view it as obvious proof of an attack on the Ady Gil, regardless of the title given to the footage (which is up on a number of different YouTube sites).

Following are links to previous posts on my personal site I have done on the topic and the Australian politics of whaling – this one from 2008 and this one from 2005. A post that is almost identical to this one is on my personal website, for anyone interested in seeing some of the comments (most of which are usually from Australia)