Thanks purely to luck, nobody died yesterday when a Japanese whaling vessel collided in Antarctic waters with a speedboat manned by anti-whaling activists. Global governments should stop these confrontations before everybody’s luck runs out.
The government-linked Institute of Cetacean Research conducts Japan’s annual whale hunt in the Antarctic summer, allegedly in the name of science. But conservationists and governments elsewhere view this as a fig leaf to cover a commercial whale harvest that has been banned since 1986 under a moratorium imposed by the International Whaling Commission.
Many Japanese see whaling much the way Americans see commercial fishing, as a legitimate activity whose constraints should be based on the science of sustainable harvests. Opponents object both on grounds that depleted whale populations cannot be sustained against commercial hunting, and that these huge and sophisticated marine mammals have a right to live in peace and not be hunted at all, just as humans do.
Members of the Sea Shepherd organization feel so strongly about this that they shadow and harass the Japanese vessels, seeking to disable them by tangling ropes in their rudders and propellers, and sometimes sideswiping them. They also try to annoy crews by firing stink bombs, just like in middle school.
But this is no middle school. The ocean around Antarctica is the stormiest in the world, prone to deadly tempests even in summer, and the nearest safe ports are thousands of miles away in Australia and New Zealand. Deliberately ramming or disabling a ship down there is a serious act of aggression.
Each side blamed the other for yesterday’s collision. Sea Shepherd said its boat, the Ady Gil, was stationary when the whaler Shonan Maru approached it, and that the Ady Gil tried to reverse its engines but could not get out of the way. Japanese officials said the Ady Gil, which is designed to be able to run rings around a whaling vessel, put itself in the path of the larger vessel. To my eyes, the videos the two sides released are inconclusive. Either way, the front 10 feet of the Ady Gil was sheared off, and the six crew members had to be transferred to another Sea Shepherd vessel, the Bob Barker, named for the American game show host who gave Sea Shepherd $5 million to buy the boat.
Who struck who yesterday is not the issue. The Japanese are in those waters to hunt whales, not speedboats. The Sea Shepherd contingent is there to hunt whalers. However noble the Sea Shepherd cause, Japanese vessels have every right to operate on the high seas, and Japanese crewmen have a right to return home safely, without having to use high-pressure hoses and other self-defense measures to protect themselves and their ships.
Sea Shepherd’s confrontational approach amounts to vigilantism at best and terrorism at worst. As our mothers taught us, two wrongs do not make a right.
There are international mechanisms to deal with the Japanese. The fact that they have not worked reflects the low priority that whales receive in the general scheme of things. If activists don’t like it, they can document the hunt from a safe distance, pressure their own governments for a stronger response through trade or other sanctions, or try to organize public boycotts of Japanese goods and services. These tactics do not work overnight, but they have been used successfully in the past, most notably against South Africa’s former apartheid regime.
In the meantime, our government and others owe it to the Japanese to stop Sea Shepherd’s outrageous conduct. The organization’s vessels can be denied entry to ports, or seized if they do enter. Crew members should be prosecuted in their home countries or elsewhere. Perhaps most importantly, the organization’s funding can be cut off.
It is illegal in this country and many others to provide material support to terrorism. In its current form, Sea Shepherd should be declared a terrorist group, much like the Earth Liberation Front (ELF) that has engaged in similar assaults in the name of environmentalism. (The ELF says it tries to avoid injuring humans or animals in its attacks, which have often involved arson. In this sense, it is arguably less reckless than Sea Shepherd.)
I think it is safe to assume that Barker would not have donated $5 million to Sea Shepherd if doing so would have sent the 86-year-old television personality to prison.
Japan’s whaling in defiance of international convention is offensive, but that is no reason for any civilized country to shy away from defending Japan’s right to use the open sea. Not many of us can afford to live in moral glass houses. To cite a couple of examples, Canada forcefully defends the hunters who club baby harp seals to death every spring in the waters off Newfoundland, and the United States ranks fourth in the world in executing prisoners, behind the unsavory governments of China, Iran and Saudi Arabia. A lot of people find these behaviors inexcusable, but North Americans would not stand for having our Coast Guards or our prisons attacked.
Yesterday’s incident should finally prod us into stopping the shenanigans at the bottom of the world, before somebody gets hurt.