Publicity off the port bow

They may not have eye patches or peg legs, but the crews aboard the Farley Mowat and the Robert Hunter officially became a band of buccaneers when the two Sea Shepherd vessels were deregistered. Without registered flags, the ships are legally classified as pirate ships under maritime law.

Over the past six months, the two ships–captained by controversial marine conservationist Paul Watson–have pursued Japanese whaling vessels in the Southern Ocean Sanctuary.

The six-ship Japanese fleet consists of three harpoon-equipped chaser vessels, two whale spotters and the Nisshin Maru–the world’s only factory whaling ship, referred to by Watson as a “floating slaughterhouse.” In spite of a moratorium on commercial whaling enacted by the International Whaling Commission in 1986, Japan continues to hunt whales thanks to a loophole allowing research.

Insisting the slaughter is necessary for their research, the Japanese began to hunt under such auspices in 1987, almost immediately following the moratorium’s institution. Due to the IWC’s ‘no waste’ rules, Japan is then ‘forced’ to process and sell the resulting whale products, generating an estimated $52 million annually in profit.

Despite killing thousands of whales, Japan’s whale research is extremely poor, providing virtually no valuable information. Not only is the research claim merely a cover for commercial exploitation, Japan also seeks to prove that whales consume too much fish and thus compete with Japan’s fishing industry. Unfortunately for the researchers, They may not have eye patches or peg legs, but the crews aboard the Farley Mowat and the Robert Hunter officially became a band of buccaneers when the two Sea Shepherd vessels were deregistered. Without registered flags, the ships are legally classified as pirate ships under maritime law.

Over the past six months, the two ships-captained by controversial marine conservationist Paul Watson-have pursued Japanese whaling vessels in the Southern Ocean Sanctuary.

The six-ship Japanese fleet consists of three harpoon-equipped chaser vessels, two whale spotters and the Nisshin Maru-the world’s only factory whaling ship, referred to by Watson as a “floating slaughterhouse.” In spite of a moratorium on commercial whaling enacted by the International Whaling Commission in 1986, Japan continues to hunt whales thanks to a loophole allowing research.

Insisting the slaughter is necessary for their research, the Japanese began to hunt under such auspices in1987, almost immediately following the moratorium’s institution. Due to the iwc’s ‘no waste’ rules, Japan is then ‘forced’ to process and sell the resulting whale products, generating an estimated $52 million annually in profit.

Despite killing thousands of whales, Japan’s research quality is extremely poor, providing virtually no valuable information. Not only is the research claim merely a cover for commercial exploitation, Japan also seeks to prove that whales consume too much fish and thus compete with Japan’s fishing industry. Unfortunately for the researchers, proving such a fact is moot, since the Antarctic whales eat krill.

Activists with Sea Shepherd have fought for more stringent enforcement on behalf of the international community, preventing the Japanese from using bogus research claims to flaunt regulations. Japan’s clout in international trade, however, has made anti-whaling nations hesitant to impose sanctions. With the failure of such diplomatic approaches, Watson led his crew into the icy Antarctic waters to blockade the whaling vessels when the Kaiko Maru-one of the spotting vessels-collided with the Robert Hunter.

While the Japanese assert the Robert Hunter intentionally rammed the Kaiko Maru, Watson claims the Kaiko Maru swerved into the starboard side of his vessel. Although Sea Shepherd’s vigilante reputation isn’t winning them any points in the dispute, it’s unlikely Watson would deny ramming the Japanese ship, as Sea Shepherd has no qualms about admitting to ramming vessels involved in illegal whaling.

The entire deb-acle has been a public gong show, complete with pirates and maritime warfare, but that’s exactly what Watson intended.

The iwc instituted the moratorium on commercial whaling because various populations were facing extinction. Unfortunately, the iwc lacks the necessary power to enforce such regulations unilaterally, and due to economic interests, nations are unlikely to back them up with sanctions. This is where independent activist groups come in. While crews aboard the Sea Shepherd ships do take conservation to extremes, they bring significant public attention to their cause through such stunts.

If activist groups weren’t vehemently fighting for conservation, it’s unlikely such standards would be voluntarily upheld when financial gains are at stake. Although the ships have been forced to return to Melbourne since running low on fuel, New Zealand conservation minister Chris Carter has agreed to become “very active on the international stage” since the public debacle.
By no means will ramming whaling vessels prevent the slaughter of thousands of cetaceans, but it will certainly cause a public stir, and in this case it may even be successful in bringing about international support against Japan.

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