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Resting Sea Shepherd: A Pause in the Whale War Saga

What a colourful run this outfit has had. Branded in 2013 by Judge Alex Kozinski of the US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit as pirates, the Sea Shepherd crew will be hanging up their hooks while rethinking their whale protection strategy. Their long designated enemy, the Japanese whaling fleet, will be given some respite this hunting season.

A crucial point here is evolution. The environmental battle, spearheaded by the Southern Ocean Whale Defence campaign, had become more troublingly sophisticated. “Military” tactics, claimed founder Captain Paul Watson, were being used by Japan. An already slippery adversary had raised the bar.

But Watson, in his announcement, was attempting to give some lustre to the long-term efforts of the project. Against absurdly gargantuan odds, a small organisation’s resources were mustered to save whale species from imminent extinction.

“In 2005 we set out to tackle the world’s largest and most destructive whaling fleet.” It was a destruction centred on targeting 1,035 whales, including an annual quota of 50 endangered Fin whales and 50 endangered Humpbacks. The sceptics were to be found on all sides: they doomed the organisation’s mission to imminent, crestfallen failure.

The humble, worse for wear Farley Mowat was enlisted to harry Japanese whalers across the Southern Ocean. But to it were added, over time, the Steve Irwin, the Bob Barker, the Sam Simon the Brigitte Bardot and the Ocean Warrior.

For Watson and his dedicated piratical crew, the law of environmental protection often lagged, while political action and matters of enforcement proved timid. States with greater power and resources were simply not keen on ruffling Japanese feathers. Statements if disapproval hardly counted.

Japanese whalers have faced the legal music in a range of venues, though as with everything, the might of the gavel doesn’t necessary restrain the might of a state, whether directly used or incidentally employed. In November 2015, Kyodo Senpaku Kaisha was fined $1 million by the Australian Federal Court for hunting minke whales within an Australian sanctuary as defined by Australian environmental law. The whaling company cared not to turn up nor subsequently cough up.

Enter, then, the organisation’s insistence on the use of “innovative direct-action tactics”, thereby putting a premium on investigation, documentation and the taking of “action when necessary to expose and confront illegal activities on the high seas.”

Preventive tactics, such as those employed in 2013 in the Southern Ocean, would feature attempts to prevent Japanese ships from taking refuelling sustenance from a tanker. On cue, both the crew of the Japanese vessels, and Sea Shepherd, would release material suggesting that the other had deliberately attempted to ram their ships.

On reaching the legal courts, the Sea Shepherd book of cetaceous protection tended to look more blotted. The Japanese angle in these instances was to emphasise the danger posed to crews, the potentially lethal bravado of the Sea Shepherd warriors. To do so offered a sizeable distraction from the legitimacy of the hunting activities.

“When you,” directed a stern Judge Kozinski, “ram ships, hurl glass containers of acid, drag metal-reinforced ropes in the water to damage propellers and rudders, launch smoke bombs and flares with hooks; and point high-powered lasers at other ships, you are, without a doubt, a pirate.”

For years, the militant nature of the organisation brought various agents, and agencies, into play. It used guerrilla tactics of gumption and daring, though it was the sort of audaciousness that divided opinion, even in the environmental ranks. Such methods may well been crude but few could dispute their effects. In 2012/3, Japanese whalers, according to Watson, returned with a meagre 10 per cent of intended kills.

The strategy of the Japanese whaling fleet, as Watson reflects, has always been shape shifting, apologetics followed by bellicosity; the fictional narrative of science overlaying arguments of culture. While still flouting legality, the number of intended whales has fallen to 333, a victory that can be, to a degree, chalked up to Sea Shepherd’s techniques of mass irritation and disruption. But to this can be added a more expansive scope embraced by their adversary: wider killing grounds, more opportunities to gather their quarry.

By 2016/7, it was clear to Watson that the Japanese were still able to net their quota, albeit at greater expense in terms of time and cost. That same hunting season also threw up a few new realities: the use by the Japanese of “military surveillance to watch Sea Shepherd movements in real time by satellite”. While the group, assisted by their helicopter, did get close to capture evidence of whaling, they “could not physically close the gap.” Hence the sombre admission by Watson: “We cannot compete with their military grade technology.”

Sea Shepherd’s mission remains, as outlined on its web site, “to end the destruction of habitat and slaughter of wildlife in the world’s oceans in order to conserve and protect ecosystems and species.” But more than a few in the Japanese whaling fleet will be pleased at the organisation’s absence this killing season.

Dr Binoy Kampmark is a senior lecturer in the School of Global, Urban and Social Studies, RMIT University. He was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, University of Cambridge. He is a contributing editor to CounterPunch and can be followed on Twitter at @bkampmark.



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  1. Terry2

    Back in 2014 The International Court of Justice’s 16-judge panel ruled 12 votes to four in favour of Australia’s argument that Japan’s whaling program was not in fact designed and carried out for scientific purposes.

    The court ruled that Japan must revoke current whaling permits and refrain from issuing any more.

    The ICJ’s ruling is final and there will be no appeal.

    A quote from the media at that time :

    ‘A spokesman for the Japanese government said the court’s decision was “deeply disappointing”.

    “We are deeply disappointed and regret that the court ruled that Japan’s research whaling program in the Antarctic did not fall within the special permit clause of the treaty,” spokesman Nori Shikata told ABC NewsRadio.

    “However Japan will abide by the judgement of the court that places a great importance on the international legal order and the rule of law.
    ‘We will abide by judgement’: Japan

    ABC NewsRadio’s Marius Benson speaks to Japan’s spokesman, Nori Shikata, about his government’s view on the court decision.

    “We will abide by the decision of the courts and although we will consider a concrete future course of action very carefully, upon studying what is stated in the judgement, we will cease the current research whaling program in the Antarctic pursuant to the judgement.

    “This is a final verdict and we are saying in a very straight forward way that we will abide by the judgement of the court.”

    What happened ?

  2. Miriam English

    Terry2, I guess they figured, “Screw the law, we want those f#ckin’ whales.”

    Maybe the Sea Shepherd needs military technology too. Drones come to mind.

  3. Johno

    Well done the Sea Shepherd team.

  4. diannaart

    I second the idea of drones – a lot of very annoying drones.


  5. Andrew J. Smith

    I am quite sceptical of Paul Watson and Sea Shepherd, but that’s not to say those involved are not good people. However, when the focus is upon Japan mostly, versus northern European whaling nations getting less focus, while decades ago Paul Watson was hanging out with Paul Ehrlich (ZPG Zero Population Growth & Club of Rome) and John Tanton (ZPG, CIS etc. networking anti-immigration and white nativist organisations now supporting Trump and has been linked to Sustainable Australia).

    The three of them attempted a takeover of the US conservationist Sierra Club (like Australian Conservation Foundation) as it was not highlighting ‘immigrants’ and ‘population growth’, but they were stymied after warnings from NGOs. A long read from the LAWeekly 2004 explains:

    Kyle Dion Wants to Make You Purr

    After watching Sea Shepherd’s own documentary featuring Paul Watson, that sceptical feeling became outright cynicism; it’s seems more about a cult of personality with a strong dislike for humanity masked by a love of whales.

  6. Andreas Wagner

    Thank you, Terry2, for reprinting this judgement and the Japanese response to it. So, it appears that for the sake of “we’ve always done that”, no change can be contemplated. And no judgement is worth the paper it is printed on unless in can be enforced. Numerous AUS governments have sidestepped the issue despite some blustering (Rudd?).
    Now, if we look around us and notice the level of ever increasing environmental destruction, perpetrated under the same old furphy arguments as “we need the jobs”, “there is money to be made”, “there’ll be a bright future”, surely the time must have come to ask ourselves: WHEN IS IT ENOUGH ? Surely, even the most bone-headed individual must realise that this slaughter on the environment, and the whales are but one part of it, must lead to the ultimate disappearance of mankind.

  7. diannaart


    There are many humans who prefer animals to other humans – for good reason. Doesn’t mean they are trying to destroy the human race – in fact it is those ‘humans’ who make the most noise about their perceived love for humanity I hold in deep suspicion.

    I do not necessarily condone all of Watson’s methods, but when compared to the methods of whale-hunters, I know where my support remains.


    Disagree, it’s not a ‘binary’ of humans versus other species (nor just about whales) where one is encouraged to take a position; it’s driven by an underlying ideology of old fossil fuel/auto oligarchs global business interests with thin veneer of ecology or conservationism, ‘green washing’ e.g. ‘sustainability’

    In fact, Watson’s old friend John Tanton (an admirer of the white Australia policy) is infamous for his comments about some parts of humanity, not for any pro-animal sentiments or rights, but need for pro-European blood and promoting ‘passive eugenics’ amongst ‘other types’ (viewed as other species). From the ADL in ‘Ties Between Anti-Immigration and Eugenics’

    ‘ “I’ve come to the point of view that for European-American society and culture to persist requires a European-American majority, and a clear one at that.”‘

    I understand people’s sentiments and supposed environmental logic of focusing upon whales (without JD Rockefeller and Standard Oil they would have become extinct long ago), but one should be aware of all species and be aware of astroturfing of supposed environmental issues, to mask old ideas of class and society.

  9. diannaart


    If I implied a binary us V animals, it was not my intention. I just feel for any who do not have a voice. This includes anyone from refugees to whales.


  10. Christina Heath

    I applaud the Sea Shepherd’s efforts and all those involved in trying to stop the seemingly endless destruction of anything living on this planet ( apart from humans). The efforts of organisations such as Sea Shepherd has created enormous awareness of the senseless killing of many sentient beings and with the rise of social media and the immediate dissemination of information, there is hope for the future of this planet. That is, if there is anything left to save.

  11. Harquebus

    The battle to save humanity depends on us winning the battle to save the environment and that battlefield has many fronts.

    “The relationship between energy, the economy, and politics is messy and complicated.”
    “A more widespread understanding of the role of energy in society, and of the likely limits to future energy supplies, could be extremely beneficial in helping the general populace adapt to scarcity and avoid needless scapegoating and violence.”

    Energy and Authoritarianism

    “We are fighting a battle against the laws of physics. Expecting our leaders to win in the battle against the laws of physics is expecting a huge amount. Some of the actions of our leaders seem extraordinarily stupid.”

    Why political correctness fails – Why what we know ‘for sure’ is wrong

    “In the ‘throwaway societies’ of the industrialised world, this is an increasingly common scenario: the cost of repairing faulty stereos, appliances, power tools, and high-tech devices often exceeds the price of buying new.
    Among the long-term results are growing piles of e-waste, overflowing landfills, and the squandering of resources and energy.”
    “It’s time to envision – and take steps to create – an economy that doesn’t destroy people and the planet just to satisfy the growth imperatives of global capital.”

    “Sea ice around Antarctica has shrunk about 2 million square kilometres in just three years, swinging from a record large maximum area covered to a record low”
    “For Antarctica, the lowest maximum extent, recorded on September 12, follows a record low minimum sea ice coverage recorded on March 1 after the summer thaw”

    “We can’t sacrifice quality for quantity when it comes to CO2 and food” By David Suzuki
    “Plants—and now even animals like salmon—have mainly been bred, through conventional breeding and genetic engineering, to grow faster and bigger, with little regard for nutrient value”
    “Like life itself, science is complex. Reductive strategies that look at phenomena and reactions in isolation miss the big picture. Our species faces an existential crisis. Overcoming it will require greater wisdom and knowledge and a better understanding of nature’s interconnectedness.”

    “This is a war of ideas. The corporate state cannot compete honestly in this contest. It will do what all despotic regimes do—govern through wholesale surveillance, lies, blacklists, false accusations of treason, heavy-handed censorship and, eventually, violence.”

    The Silencing of Dissent

    “Vladimir Putin has defended climate change deniers and hailed the economic potential of the melting Arctic.”
    “Mr Putin also defended the appointment of a global warming sceptic to the Environmental Protection Agency in the United States.”

    “researchers warn that if “new abundant energy resources” aren’t lined up, the situation will “challenge the sustainable development of Chinese society.””

    “In effect, our leadership leads by lying.”

    “Every time there is a big patch of warm water in the Pacific Ocean, you have a big drought and forest fires in the Amazon. That happened in 1982, 1997, 2006, and 2015. El Niño produced huge forest fires in the Brazilian state of Roraima and in Venezuela.
    These fires represent something that the forest simply can’t stand up to. The Amazon forest isn’t adapted to fire”

    Amazon forest fires pushing climate change ‘beyond human control’

    “Fuel resources have been a once-only gift of nature, and there are no viable substitutes.”
    “We have substituted debt for income and allowed that debt to grow to mask the reality of our situation. We are stealing from our own future and from generations unborn to stay solvent.”
    “Wages are paid from energy surpluses, not printing presses, and that surplus has been gradually reducing.”
    “We are 7.5 billion people on a planet that, pre-oil, supported between 1 and 2 billion.”
    “Energy depletion = social collapse”

  12. Peregrine McCauley

    How can i be happy , when 30 million women and girls are raped & beheaded , prostituted by religion and power.
    How can i be happy , that man controls the status quo .
    Pillages , plunders , taketh the whole .
    ‘Cause there aint nought here , to make ’em bow .
    So i look forward , to be nothing .

  13. absurdist123

    Neptunes navy will rise again, but for now her soldiers are weary and the brass needs time to strategize. Watch the seas, she’ll be back.

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