Fight to save whales relentless

SIOBHAN DOWNES
Last updated 05:00 11/01/2014

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They first declared battle 10 years ago, and this year the Sea Shepherd intends to win the war against the whalers.

Each summer for the past decade the same hunt has played out.

A Japanese whaling fleet sets off for the Southern Ocean, hoping to harvest around 1000 whales.

Conditions are ideal - for the hunters and the hunted.

A small window of fine weather enables the whalers to brave the southern seas.

At the same time, whales begin the migration to the Antarctic feeding grounds with their newborn.

In 1994 the International Whaling Commission designated the area as a whale sanctuary where commercial hunting whaling is banned, but Japan uses a special permit that allows whaling for scientific research.

The leftover whale meat is sold as food in Japan's fish markets.

Environmental group the Sea Shepherd says the hunt is commercial, not scientific, and illegal.

Every year its fleet pursues the whaling ships, trying to chase them out of the sanctuary.

It has dubbed this year's campaign Operation Relentless.

It's a dangerous game of cat-and-mouse. Last season, Japan's factory ship, the Nisshin Maru, and the Sea Shepherd's Bob Barker collided, as protesters attempted to block the whaling ship's slipway.

But the tactics succeed. Last year, the whalers were able to kill only 103 whales, the smallest catch since research whaling began in 1987.

The Sea Shepherd found the whalers even earlier this season, catching them off guard.

The group's helicopter crew captured images of the Nisshin Maru with three dead minke whales on a blood-soaked deck.

The graphic images were beamed around the world this week.

Captaining the Bob Barker is 29-year-old Peter Hammarstedt of Sweden.

So far the fleet has managed to chase the whaling fleet out of the sanctuary, but now a harpoon ship is pursuing them, he says via satellite.

Confrontation is inevitable, as the Bob Barker attempts once again to make it to the slipway of the Nisshin Maru.

Once they reach the slipway, the whaling season will be shut down for the year. "They're intent on stopping us stop them,"  ammarstedt says.

"But the whaling fleet averages 20 to 30 whales a day, so every day we keep them running means 20 or 30 whales are saved."

He joined the crew when he was 18. Many Sea Shepherd activists dedicate their whole lives to this annual showdown.

"I'm used to chasing poachers to the ends of the earth and back, and I'll continue to do that until we stop the slaughter once and for all."

NZ: THE PLUNDERER BECOMES A PROTECTOR

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New Zealand was once a whaling nation, but times have changed.

Whalers from all over the world were attracted to New Zealand's shores in the 18th and 19th centuries, and played a significant part in the country's early settlement.

A century later and the global environmental movement began.

In 1978 New Zealand passed the Marine Mammals Protection Act, abolishing whaling.

Its actions reflected a widespread anti-whaling feeling, and in 1986 the International Whaling Commission agreed to a moratorium on commercial whaling.

Its former New Zealand representative, Sir Geoffrey Palmer, says over the years the commission has become paralysed between those who kill whales and those who believe they should be preserved.

"There are a lot of nations who think if whaling were done under proper safeguards, with proper allocation of quotas through the International Whaling Commission, that you could have commercial whaling," he says.

"In Western countries, there's a sort of symbolic argument [whales] are like people - they're sentient beings, they breathe air, and one shouldn't treat them like fish."

Britain, the United States, New Zealand and Australia all used to be whaling nations but decided conservation was the best policy and outlawed the practice.

"New Zealanders are passionate in their defence of whales, and it shows up strongly in political polling," Sir Geoffrey says.

New Zealand governments have frequently spoken out against Japanese whaling, but diplomatic difficulties often prevent harsher action.

While Foreign Affairs Minister Murray McCully condemned the start of this year's whaling season, he said there was little the Government could do to intervene. The waters were international, and not within New Zealand's maritime jurisdiction.

But the Sea Shepherd argues the waters are governed by New Zealand as they are located within the Ross Dependency region.

Its activists say New Zealand, as a signatory to the Southern Ocean Whale Sanctuary, should target whaling there just as it targets illegal fishing activities.

"Our position is the integrity of the sanctuary needs to be protected, it's a sanctuary for a reason and Japan are illegally whaling there," Sea Shepherd spokesman Michael Lawry says.

"Everyone knows it's not scientific. The only reason they get away with it is they are incredibly powerful, influential and wealthy." 

WHY CAN'T JAPANESE EAT WHALES?

"Asking Japan to abandon this part of its culture would compare to Australians being asked to stop eating meat pies, Americans being asked to stop eating hamburgers and the English being asked to go without fish and chips."

This is what the Japan Whaling Association argues, in a statement on its English-language website.

Industrial whaling in Japan can be traced back to the Edo period (1603-1867).

The system was invented by a warlord who saw it as a source of income for his town, which had been crippled by civil war.

Whaling took off around the western regions of Japan.

Then, in the face of extreme food shortages after World War II, United States General Douglas MacArthur encouraged Japan to revive whaling nationwide.

Whale meat was a cheap source of protein to feed millions of starving people, and the government introduced it into school lunchboxes.

But tastes have changed, and now younger Japanese generations have little or no experience of the whale meat their grandparents grew up with.

"Many old men who support whaling are nostalgic about the old times," says Japan-based Dolphin and Whale Action Network secretary-general Nanami Kurasawa.

"I think Japanese people are not as uncomfortable, compared to foreign people, seeing whale as a type of seafood. But this does not mean many Japanese eat it - generally not many people eat it."

The organisation estimates the average amount of whale meat a Japanese person eats in a year is 23.7 grams - a wafer-thin slice.

They say there is an increasing stockpile of unsold frozen whale meat.

The Institute of Cetacean Research, which carries out the scientific whaling, rubbishes these claims. Its New Zealand spokesman, Glenn Inwood, says there are also thousands of tonnes of frozen beef and pork in storage in Japan, but that doesn't mean people don't eat those meats.

The institute maintains a Japanese website - Whale Alley - which promotes whale meat as a healthy food option.

It contains a database of whale meat suppliers and restaurants around the country, and advertises whale markets and festivals. It also has recipes and suggests how to make use of every part of a whale.

International Whaling Commission figures show there are an abundance of minke whales, Mr Inwood says.

He argues, why shouldn't they be used for food?

Japan is not alone in its views. Iceland and Norway are both known to hunt a few hundred whales a year commercially. They objected to the international whaling ban and do not consider themselves bound by it.

"Anti-whaling is not world opinion. In fact, many countries around the world use whales and small cetaceans for food," Mr Inwood says.

"Even among populations that do not use whales for food there is widespread support for the principle of sustainable use of resources, including whales." 

FRESH TALKS ON THE CARDS

While the whale wars continue to be fought in the Southern Ocean, the real sea change may come from a landmark legal challenge.

In 2010, Australia filed a case against Japan in the International Court of Justice. In late 2012, New Zealand joined the fight. Hearings began in The Hague in June last year.

Australia and New Zealand argued the annual "scientific" whale hunt in the Southern Ocean Sanctuary is illegal, and that Japan has killed more than 10,000 whales since the moratorium came into effect in 1986.

Japan remained staunch in its argument that it was acting within the rules of the International Whaling Commission.

Both parties have agreed to respect the outcome, expected in March.

Sir Geoffrey says it is unlikely one side will win everything.

"But I am hopeful that when the result of this case is known, there will be fresh negotiations that allow some sort of enduring settlement of these issues to be arrived at."

NZ PLAYERS AGAINST THE WHALERS

SIR GEOFFREY PALMER Former prime minister and environment minister who was New Zealand's commissioner to the International Whaling Commission from 2002 to 2010, providing a diplomatic voice to the anti-whaling movement.

ISAAC SCOTT 12-year-old Upper Hutt schoolboy who presented a petition containing more than 5000 signatures to Parliament, urging the Government to stop Japanese whaling in the Southern Ocean. He is the youth patron for the National Whale Centre.

MURRAY McCULLY Foreign Affairs Minister, who announced in 2012 that New Zealand would formally lodge an intervention against Japanese whaling in the case brought by Australia to the International Court of Justice.

PETE BETHUNE Former Sea Shepherd captain who was famously arrested in Tokyo on charges of trespassing after he boarded a Japanese whaling vessel in the Antarctic. He was convicted of assault, trespass, vandalism and possession of a knife, and deported to New Zealand.

CHRIS CARTER Former conservation minister who became a vocal anti-whaling advocate and negotiator. Faced controversy in 2007 when the Government was called upon to help a gravely ill Japanese whaler, who was airlifted to Wellington hospital.

CHRIS FINLAYSON Attorney-General who took New Zealand's intervention against Japanese whaling to the International Court of Justice last year. It was New Zealand's third appearance at the court.

THE DOMINION POST In 2008 the newspaper launched a campaign against Japanese whaling. Then editor Tim Pankhurst tried to deliver a letter to the Japanese Ambassador, but was ejected from the embassy. An online petition was signed by 13,800 readers.

- © Fairfax NZ News

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