Global Economics

Antiwhaling Activists: The Japanese Will Be Back


A Sea Shepherd activist readies a paint slingshot towards the Japanese whaling ship Nisshin Maru in 2011

Photograph by Sea Shepherd via AP Photo

A Sea Shepherd activist readies a paint slingshot towards the Japanese whaling ship Nisshin Maru in 2011

After more than a decade fighting the Japanese government’s whaling fleet in the waters off of Antarctica, the Australian branch of the environmental group Sea Shepherd is taking an extended break. Sea Shepherd Australia’s newest ship is now in Sydney, where it docked at the city’s maritime museum over the weekend to take part in a special exhibition on whales. Meanwhile, two other Sea Shepherd ships, the Steve Irwin (named for the late crocodile hunter) and the Bob Barker (bought with a donation from the longtime Price Is Right host) are headed to dry dock for much-needed repairs.

Sea Shepherd can afford to relax for now. With winter approaching in Antarctica, the annual Japanese hunt for whales in the waters off the frozen continent has come to an end. The numbers are now in: 251 minke whales killed, up from 103 in the previous season, Japan’s Fisheries Agency announced last Tuesday. The haul was still a big disappointment, well short of the target of 935 whales, largely because of Sea Shepherd’s efforts to disrupt the hunt.

The Japanese won’t be able to try better next year, following a stunning defeat at the United Nations International Court of Justice in the Hague. The court on March 31 ordered Japan to stop killing whales in the Southern Ocean, a hunt that slew as many as 1,000 whales a year for what the Japanese government said was scientific research. After the court ruling, the government of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said it would abide by the decision and call off the upcoming 2014-15 hunt.

“We are celebrating this victory,” says Adam Burling, Sea Shepherd spokesman. “It’s a moment for all of us to take a bit of a rest and look back at 12 years of campaigns in the Antarctic.”

Still, the antiwhaling activists aren’t about to disband. Instead, Sea Shepherd is trying to convince supporters that it still has a role to play in the fight to save the whales. The group’s founder, Paul Watson, argues that Japan is not about to give up on its whaling program so easily. ”Despite the posturing by the Japanese Foreign Ministry,” Watson posted on his Facebook (FB) page last Monday, “I am quite sure that they will return for the 2015/2016 season.”

According to Sea Shepherd, Japan’s decision to call of the upcoming hunt is just a concession to the calendar. To continue whaling in the Southern Ocean, the Japanese government would need the International Whaling Commission to bless a new and improved scientific program. With the IWC’s Scientific Committee scheduled to hold its annual meeting next month in Slovenia, there’s not enough time for Japan to put together a proposal, says Burling.

The Japanese organization in charge of the whale hunt on Friday indicated that the antiwhaling activists may be right: This fight isn’t over. In response to Sea Shepherd’s efforts to disrupt Japanese whaling in the Antarctic, Japan’s Institute of Cetacean Research in 2011 sued Watson and the Oregon-based branch of Sea Shepherd in U.S. District Court in Seattle and on Friday filed a brief with the court stating that the plaintiffs “expect that they will be conducting a Southern Ocean research program for subsequent seasons that would be in accord with the ICJ decision.”

So will the Japanese be hunting again in 2015-16? We’ll need to see what the Institute proposes and whether the International Whaling Commission gives its blessing to a new research program. But the Japanese government should think twice before moving ahead with a new plan to hunt whales in the Antarctic. The whaling program has damaged Japan’s image around the world at a time when Prime Minister Abe needs friends to support the country in its territorial dispute with China. Throwing in the towel because of pressure from save-the-whale foreigners might be too much for a nationalist such as Abe, but a ruling from the International Court of Justice offers a face-saving way for him to suspend the program.

According to Atsushi Ishii, an expert on international relations in science and technology at Tohoku University who was interviewed by the Associated Press, the ICJ’s ruling against Japan is an example of the sort of external pressure, or gaiatsu, that historically has led to changes in the the country. ”Unfortunately Japan cannot change its policies without gaiatsu, and [the ruling] definitely serves that role to finally bring about a change,” Ishii told the AP.

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Einhorn is Asia regional editor in Bloomberg Businessweek’s Hong Kong bureau. Follow him on Twitter @BruceEinhorn.

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