The good shepherds

This year Japan suffered its worst ever whaling season. The reason? Battle-hardened conservationists.


They might be modern-day pirates, as one US court damningly ruled, but their motive is nothing like gold and silver. Sea Shepherd, a non-profit marine wildlife conservation organisation, is renowned for using direct and aggressive tactics to prevent ocean killings on the high seas. Diplomacy is thrown overboard. Whatever needs to be done, will be done.

The Japanese government is well aware. It is among the few countries that hunt and kill whales. The practice was banned in the 1986 international moratorium on commercial whaling, but Japan claims it uses whales for scientific purposes. That exploits a loophole in the law. In the beginning of this year, it dispatched ships to the Southern Ocean to hunt. They were shadowed by four Sea Shepherd vessels.

In fact, they were not shadowed. They were harassed. The Sea Shepherd ships deliberately blocked their routes. They isolated the fuelling ship in order to starve the fleets. At one point, they collided into a Japanese vessel during a refuelling stop, prompting Japan’s Institute of Cetacean Research, which organises the hunt, to label their actions “malicious and unacceptable”.


Luis Manuel Pinho, one of the Sea Shepherd captains, likened the cat-and-mouse chase to a game of Battleship. “There’s blocking, intercepting, bluffing, maneuvering for positions and advantages, cutting and maintaining supply lines, avoidances and precautions,” he said. “The objective of the Japanese whalers is to kill the whales and our objective is to make sure they don’t.”

In the end, the Japanese fleets sailed home with disastrous results. During the 48-day expedition, they had spent 21 days solely on avoiding Sea Shepherd fleets. They had wanted to catch 935 minke whales. They got 103. They had wanted 50 humpback whales and 50 fin whales. None were taken. The catch was less than half of the mammals killed in the previous season. It was Japan’s worst whaling season on record.


The figures, released in April, were lamented by the Japanese government. Yoshimasa Hayashi, the minister for agriculture, forestry and fisheries, blamed the “unforgivable sabotage” by activist, particularly Sea Shepherd.

The conservation group hailed the mission as a resounding success. Peter Hammarstedt, one of the captains, said: “Sea Shepherd’s ninth campaign to Antarctica was named Operation Zero Tolerance because illegal whaling in the Southern Ocean Whale Sanctuary in violation of an Australian Federal Court ruling prohibiting the killing of threatened, endangered and protected whales cannot, and will not, be tolerated by Sea Shepherd.”

The annual battles have become a source of revenue for Sea Shepherd. In 2008, Animal Planet filmed a TV documentary titled ‘Whale wars’, which follows their combats with the Japanese fleets. The third season averaged nearly 1.4 million viewers. A fourth season is airing this summer. And judging by their determination to stop whaling, there will most likely be new material available for yet another season.

Photos: Sea Shepherd Conservation Society.