Did Sea Shepherd do more harm than good?

Peter Griffin

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.

Got a question about this story? Leave it in Comments & Questions below.

This article is tagged with the following keywords. Find out more about MyNBR Tags

NZ Market Snapshot


Sym Price Change
USD 0.7314 -0.0019 -0.26%
AUD 0.9181 0.0034 0.37%
EUR 0.6156 -0.0021 -0.34%
GBP 0.5425 -0.0012 -0.22%
HKD 5.7086 -0.0103 -0.18%
JPY 82.2700 -0.2650 -0.32%


Commodity Price Change Time
Gold Index 1301.0 -9.900 2017-09-20T00:
Oil Brent 56.3 1.090 2017-09-20T00:
Oil Nymex 50.7 1.150 2017-09-20T00:
Silver Index 17.3 0.055 2017-09-20T00:


Symbol Open High Last %
NZX 50 7851.1 7851.1 7819.2 -0.30%
NASDAQ 6459.7 6466.1 6461.3 -0.08%
DAX 12602.0 12620.8 12569.2 0.13%
DJI 22351.4 22413.3 22370.8 0.19%
FTSE 7271.9 7282.8 7271.9 0.11%
HKSE 28091.2 28184.4 28127.8 -0.06%
NI225 20456.5 20481.3 20310.5 0.18%
ASX 5709.1 5709.1 5709.1 -0.94%