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Did Sea Shepherd do more harm than good?

After years of vitriolic and dangerous clashes in Antarctic waters between Japanese whaling vessels and the Sea Shepherd fleet, the news came in decidedly dry legalese. 

Remedies: Measures going beyond declaratory relief warranted. Japan required to revoke any extant authorisation, permit or licence to kill, take or treat whales in relation to JARPA II and refrain from granting any further permits in pursuance of that programme. No need to order additional remedy requested by Australia.

judgment handed down overnight by the International Court of Justice ruled that state-sanctioned Japanese whaling in the Antarctic isn’t for scientific research at all and ordered a halt to such hunting.

Sea Shepherd's Bob Barker in Wellington Harbour

Sea Shepherd’s Bob Barker in Wellington Harbour

The legal win is a major victory for Australia which brought the case in 2010 with support from New Zealand. It is also, indirectly, a win for Sea Shepherd, which has fought so long and hard to thwart the efforts of the whalers in the Southern Ocean.

This morning, the Sea Shepherd ship Bob Barker was tied up in Wellington Harbour, still and quiet as I walked past on the way to work. A bearded crew member tapped away on a MacBook on deck – but no one else was to be seen – maybe the celebrations last night went into the early hours. A rusty gash along the Bob Barker’s hull was a reminder of the close quarters combat the ship regularly engaged in.

This is not necessarily the end of the issue. Japan could flout the ruling. But it has indicated that it will not, in which case it will have to wind up its whaling operations, or change them drastically to meet the definition of whaling for scientific purposes.

I don’t know any New Zealanders, except the Wellington-based PR consultant Glenn Inwood, Japan’s Institute for Cetacean Research’s spin doctor, who supports Japan’s claim to hunt minke whales in the Southern Ocean. Scientists I’ve talked to say they see no legitimate scientific purpose to hunting and killing large numbers of whales. Most people will be in agreement that the International Court judgment is great news.

Loss of face
But could this conclusion have been reached sooner if the Southern Ocean warfare between environmentalists and whalers not taken place? Foreign Affairs Minister Murray McCully suggested as much on Radio New Zealand this morning. Asked by host Simon Mercep whether Sea Shepherd deserved thanks for the role it has played in the dispute, McCully responded with an emphatic “no”:

This is a programme that is carried out today largely for reasons of pride on Japan’s part, rather than because there’s any use for the whale meat or any good scientific outcomes. One of the problems has been that the protest activity down there has rather made Japan dig its heels in. So while I am sure some of the Sea Shepherd people will claim credit for it, in fact, my own perspective has been that Japan needs a bit of space here to work its way out of a practise that has got no future.

Sea Shepherd footage of Japanese whalers

Sea Shepherd footage of Japanese whalers

McCully is saying that an end to whaling in Antarctica could have been brought about sooner if purely diplomatic efforts had been undertaken to convince Japan to give up whaling. Sea Shepherd and its supporters will scoff at that suggestion. It can’t be disputed that the dramatic footage of ships colliding in the Southern Ocean has captured media attention and kept the issue of whaling in the spotlight for years. But it also made it incredibly difficult for the Japanese to recall its ships and shut down its whaling programme.

As this Discovery Channel article suggests, that resistance has its roots in deep-seated cultural values around whaling that are held dear by the Japanese.

This history is an important part of why the Japanese continue to hunt whales. Attempts to stop the nation’s whaling are perceived by many as a threat to Japanese culture. According to its defenders, eating whale meat is an old and impenetrable Japanese tradition. “No one has the right to criticise the food culture of another people,” said Matayuki Komatsu of Japan’s Fisheries Agency.

A sense of pride also fuels Japan’s commitment to whaling. To some, the words and actions of those who oppose Japanese whaling are “culturally arrogant” and unnecessarily harsh. This only serves to strengthen the country’s resolve to maintain its whaling, according to some.

It is unclear as to what progress a different course of action would have taken. If Sea Shepherd had left the issue in the hands of McCully and his fellow diplomats around the world, would Japan quietly have wound down its whaling operations sooner?

Personally, I doubt it. Sea Shepherd forced the issue on to the media agenda, with graphic footage of whales being butchered and environmentalists clashing with whalers. They understood the power this would have and got the response they wanted – worldwide condemnation of Japan. They couldn’t shame Japan into stopping, no one could. It was legal action that succeeded in compelling Japan to agree to stop whaling in Antarctica, which may suggest the activist group actually had limited impact on the decision. But without Sea Shepherd, would there have been the political will on the part of Australia to take Japan to the ICJ?

The impact on public perception of Japan’s whaling efforts can’t be underestimated – arguably the group has done more to raise awareness of whaling and the health of whale populations than any other group.

But Sea Shepherd has many detractors, including in the scientific community. Marine scientists writing at Deep Sea News have long condemned Sea Shepherd’s actions:

  1. Ramming another vessel is against every maritime code and general sense of decency I can think of.

  2. For a captain to put both his own vessel and crew at risk but another as well, intentionally, is beyond forgiveness.

  3. To conduct such an act that serves absolutely no function other than showboating or putting on a good show for television crews is cheap

  4. To waste donation money for boat repair, given the three points above, is unethical and betrays the confidence of donors.

  5. For a certain media company who owns this channel to be involved in such stunts, when the purported mission of said group is supposedly education, is hypocritical among many other not so nice terms.

Shark divers and conservationists who followed Sea Shepherd’s progress were unimpressed at the group’s approach:

The question most credible NGO’s are asking themselves these days, what is worse? Killing whales for bogus research, or exploiting the killing of whales for television ratings and eco donations from a well meaning and ill informed public?

So what now for Sea Shepherd? There are other campaigns to fight, with Iceland and Norway still whaling and Japan undertaking whaling in the northern Pacific. Many environmentalists will see the Sea Shepherd approach as being the most effective one when there is stubborn resistance to change on environmental issues.

But the lingering suspicion remains that a bit of cultural sensitivity and diplomacy could have got the job done faster, saving the lives of thousands of whales and avoiding putting the lives of human beings in danger.

Peter Griffin manages the Royal Society's Science Media Centre. He posts at SciBlogs.

Comments and questions

If Sea Shepherd hadn't refused to give up the fight Japan would have whaled on. I reckon Sea Shepherd forced the hand of Aust Govt to do something because the public support for them demanded it.

Sea Shepherd did NOT force the hand of the Australian government, how audacious ? such arrogance. No , the right ruling was made in the Hague all thanks to Australia and New Zealand. Sea Shepherd continued to incite and inflame the situation year after year when whales could have been saved not slaughtered. Sea Shepherd and their leader are ego tripping feral psychos who foolishly believe that violence intimidation, threats, lies ,( if you dont know an answer just make it up on the spot quote PW ) corrupt behaviour is the only thing these thugs know. How many years does it take to stop whaling Watson? that footage made him a rich man. No, thuggery is not the answer to a proud people, thanks go to the New Zealand and Australian governments .. only!

It seems like the Sea shepherds did force the hand of the government.The Australian government simply finally gave in, that's why the case went to court. The government gave in to political pressure. Sure there were some people in government that stood up for what was right, for the right reason, but most didn't. How exactly would whales have been saved before this descion. I quote " Sea Shepherd continued to incite and inflame the situation year after year when whales could have been saved not slaughtered". When could the whales have been saved in that situation?

Sea Shepherd crew are not psychos and they don't use violence intimidation, have you seen the Bob Barker next to the whaling vessel, or threats. I believe Sea Shepherds showed a remarkable amount of restraint given the circumstances.

If a robber got a bit banged up by police because he was robbing a shop at gunpoint we would praise the police wouldn't we? This was a much more dire situation! Sentient creatures were being slaughtered! Genocide!

Politicians lie all the time, in fact I am certain that you, Evie, have lied and made up answers on the spot all the time. I would like to know what lies you are talking about.

The praise cannot go only to the Australian and New Zealand government. There are a multitude of people who helped reach this conclusion, besides members of the government and the Sea Shepherds.

Your out of your mind. If Sea shepherd had Not saved over 5000 whales those Whales would now be sitting in Japanese freezers. The Japanese have no intention on giving up Whaling. This has Nothing to do with Japanese pride. Japan has said over and over this is about "food security" for the future. They know if they throw in the towel and stop whaling it will be a thousand times harder for them to resume Whaling again in the future. Anyone who thinks Japan would have given up Whaling on their own by now is completely ignorant. The previous Japanese fisheries minister said he expected Whales to one day go Extinct and he hoped Japan would make the most of Whales as food for its people. When asked if he was concerned about them going Extinct he said No and they would just move to a different food source. As for Paul Watson being a rich man, this is not true. Hebmakes a fraction compared to those who run Greenpeace. Lives in a modest house and deserves every penny. Animal planet made the majority of any money but it did bring the Whaling issue into people's homes, which was a great thing. So yes you can thank Sea Shepherd for saving over 5000 lives and putting pressure on Australia and NZ but Murry mcCully and NZ had to be dragged to court kicking and screaming. No thanks to them in this case.they have always been spineless

SS brought the on going fighting in the SO to our attention, they did not force the hand of Australia and NZ. Its typically typical of SS to take all the praise all the accolades all the credit. I would expect nothing less of this group.

The problem with the environmental lobby is that unless you subscribe to their particular world view, then you are despised and regarded as having no ability to contribute a debate.
i would suggest that many of these environmentalists who "Save Our Whales" are actually extremely hypocritical, in that why save the whales and not any another fish species; are not the resources of the sea given to mankind for his own sustenance.

I agre with what you say Jack.
They are hypocrites they are thugs they are liars...what about the whales in Iceland ? Norway? does Watson save them? why target the Japanese only ?
I can tell you why, Iceland and Norway could arrest Paul Watson for various crimes so he's too lilly livered to go there, then there is the southern ocean footage he couldnt get anywhere else , Watson wanted another season of his pathetic TV program.
Without this footage the show would cease as would the donations to Watson's bank account.
I am very happy that due to two countries, whaling seems to have ceased when it didnt cease year after year after year when Watson told us "this year whaling will cease" yeah right, the magic dollar plus the desired hero Hollywood fame was too desirable for his ego to turn down.

Evie you wrong again. Sea Shepherd have sunk several whaling vessels in iceland in Nov 86. And destroyed whale processing plant at Hvalfjordur. In 94 they also took on the Norwegians.

I think I said that. Where am I wrong. They sink ships they attack people at will they are a law unto themselves. Crims.

No you said "why target the Japanese only" I'm saying they don't.

B*****ks. Such statements reek of 'saving face'. Like them or not Sea Shepherd and Greenpeace kept the disgusting Japanese pillage of the oceans in front of the masses.

Come on, we're talking about the nation that still believes that the only thing it did wrong in World War 2 was that it lost. And its so-called longstanding cultural tradition of eating whale meat is just like its longstanding cultural tradition of eating tuna: it's only been a "tradition'' since World War 2.

The Sea Shepperd, corvette, Steve Irwin, actually the prototype OPV1 RN Corvette for a Royal Navy WW3 corvette, performed magnificently. Watson commanding his corvette thru the iceburgs at a steady 17 knots flying the jolly roger, was in the grande and true tradition of the Royal Navy of total defiance and engaging the enemy. Grosser and the MFAT traitors would not even support the world court action..

McCully is cashing in on something for which he deserves no credit at all.

New Zealand behaved in a cowardly fashion by refusing to protest in case we make matters worse.

What a contemptible stand. (And how typical - like all those invisible protests over Communist China's appalling behaviour to its own dissident people.)

It was only when the Australian government protested that we crept under is skirts to do the same.

McCully's stance should be a national embarrassment. I don't support extremist movements, but it was the Sea Shepherd and the current and convictions of all those involved, that undoubtedly helped focus world attention on this outdated and barbaric practice.

The fact that the Minister will give them no credit, while implicitly implying that he and the government deserve it, is cheapskate behaviour

I think SS did make matters worse by inciting the Japanese, a proud race of people who have cultural diferences, sure they should not have continued to say they killed whales for scientific purposes however they did and the loop hole allowed them to do so .

Going down to the SO every year to inflame to incite the whalers was a stupid thing to do. Watson was only after amazing footage for a TV show, why did it take many years of promises by SS to stop whaling ? they didnt stop whaling the Japanese planned to whale again this year.

Conservation groups should be thoroughly investigated , their motivation is blurred nothing is as it seems.

Thank you NZ and Australia for working on this for the past four years and doing it the right way the diplomatic way in a respectable way, not by throwing bottles of acid in the faces of the 'enemy' ,attempting to sink their ships, endangering lives with a very real possibility of polluting the pristine waters of Antarctica.

Thuggery is never acceptable or the answer.

Look nobody ever threw bottles of acid into anyone's faces, that's ridiculous. Sea Shepherd also Never tried to sink a Japanese Whaling vessel. They also never went down to Antarctica to "inflame" the Whalers. They went to stop them. Saving over 5000 lives. If they had not gone those Whales would be sitting in freezers. The tv show came after years of going down and in the first years of that show Sea Shepherd were paid very little money. And really NZ sat on its hands and did nothing. We can only thank Australia and Sea Shepherd for this out come.

How little you know. There are people who have been there, who know the facts, unlike you Marcus. I wont burst your bubble, one day you might not believe every word from PW is gospel. Frankly I dont care either way, its just a pity that people like you go on believing lies from the SS cult.

Actually I've been down to Antarctica 3 times. Thanks Greg. So yes I have all the facts. I don't remember seeing you there?

And No Greg the " loop hole" did not allow them to kill these Whales. Everyone who did nothing to stop them "Allowed" this to happen. This loop hole that you talk about was twisted into a disgusting slaughter. And if we all sat back and did nothing they would still be killing thousands of Whales. 5000 whales swim our oceans today because some people took a stand.

Both Governments have hopefully stopped whaling,the only thanks to the radical hippies (SSC) is for letting us all know they were 'stopping' whaling for the past several years with violence ....only they never did , congratulations goes to New Zealand and Australia. By the lack of interest shown here it's obvious that few are interested in a bragging loud mouthed delusional suspect conservationist who you can bet will take all the credit.

Over 5000 Whales saved by Sea Shepherd. That's something to be very very proud of. NZ basically had to be dragged to court kicking and screaming by Australia and did nothing.but yes thank you Australia

I think Mr. Mc Cully is a discerning , intelligent & very wise man.
Cassandra ,if you dont support extremist movements then dont support the trouble making SSC.
Mr. McCully does not have to support a crazy gang of cultists, why should he ? it was his government and Australia who ended whaling.
I see where an ex screw loose laughing stock Greens MP from Tasmania is the head of this organisation in Australia , is very loudly proclaiming PW is a 'global hero' , a global hero ? his deluded mind only!!

Murray mcCully is a spineless Coward. He sat on his hands year after year and did absolutely Nothing. Talk about riding the coat tails of Australia.

Marcus when you can make up your own mind without brainwashing then comment with the facts. The spineless coward who went on the run to escape prison for allegedly attemtpting to kill ( not the first time either) is the one you admire so much. Have your own opinion, dont slavishly follow a corrupt organisation , dont parrott what you have been told by the cult as fact.

Murray mcCully is as much use as tits on a bull. The Japanese reporter who said Paul Watson would most likely be killed inside a Japanese jail was probably on the money. Hosing a fishing vessel down with water after catching them fishing inside a world heritage site and marine park is not "attempting to kill". That was the most ridiculous charge. And Paul Watson was put on the red list because of Pete Bethunes testimony when Pete Bethune blamed Paul Watson for "making" him board the Shonan. You can alledged anything. I can basically sue anyone for anything. This does not mean any of it's true. Sea Shepherds membership has grown bigger and bigger every year. The latest ruling shows that Sea Shepherd was completely correct. This was never "research" but just a dirty slaughter. If this happened in Africa these poachers would be shot dead.