JAPANS WHALING FLEET ON THE RUN
(from Sydney Morning Herald)
January 22, 2011
The future of Japan's Antarctic industry hangs in the balance,
writes Andrew Darby.
IN THE shadows of intent, somewhere between harmless fireworks and deadly force, lies the whaling conflict in the Antarctic.
At one end of this spectrum are the stink bombs thrown against water jets. At the other is the near fatal collision involving the Ady Gil. Among all this piratical colour and movement, decisive moments of a decades-long struggle can pass little noticed.
Such was the case last week when a bizarre fleet manoeuvre formed in the Southern Ocean.
Three black ships of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society took up positions around a red fuel tanker and escorted it out of the Antarctic. Skulking in their wakes were two of the three harpoon-equipped whale hunter ships in the Japanese fleet.
The hunter ships had been tagging the black ships for two weeks, instead of harpooning whales.
Sea Shepherd's Neptune's Navy had tracked them down on New Year's Eve, only hours after they reached their whaling grounds.
The factory ship Nisshin Maru, together with the third harpoon boat, gave the activists the slip. But the two hunters were ordered to keep tabs on Sea Shepherd, presumably to inform the Nisshin Maru so it could keep clear. Now that the Sea Shepherd ships had locked on to the tanker Sun Laurel, the conservationists claimed to have found the fleet's Achilles heel. If Nisshin Maru could not refuel, Japan's whalers would have to cut their season short.
Neptune's Navy came one step closer to ruling the waves. It was further evidence that, after spending 23 years killing about 10,000 Antarctic minkes in the name of science, Japan's whalers are increasingly embattled.
They have seen the collapse of International Whaling Commission talks that might have given them a legitimate Antarctic kill, and taken a series of hits at home.
They had to share official blame for the Ady Gil shipwreck and were forced to apologise for running a whale-meat black market. In the legal trade the Japanese consumer appetite for their product is at best lukewarm.
Falling meat sales are stretching the finances of Japan's whaling agency, the Institute of Cetacean Research. And in the same way that tax laws finally caught up with the US gangster Al Capone, marine regulations are encircling Nisshin Maru, the world's last factory whaling ship.
The hopes of long-time opponents, such as Patrick Ramage, from the International Fund for Animal Welfare, are rising. ''What I sense now is that the whaling industry is in its death throes,'' Ramage says.
The global politics of whaling shifted at a crucial International Whaling Commission meeting in Morocco in June, when the dispute between pro- and anti-whaling governments came to a head.
Of all the issues dividing the 88-member Whaling Commission, none is more sensitive than Japan's Antarctic whaling. A scheme to resolve this split emerged before the Morocco meeting, after three years of secretive wrangling between central commission countries, including Australia.
Its chairman, Cristian Maquieira, of Chile, offered a proposal to reduce Japan's quotas for five years from its present maximum of 935 minke whales to 400, and from 50 fin whales to 10; both these numbers were to halve again for the following five years.
To some anti-whaling governments, including the US, it was a potential face-saver for Japan to phase out Antarctic whaling. New Zealand's representative on the Whaling Commission, Sir Geoffrey Palmer, memorably said everyone would have to ''swallow the dead rat'' of compromise.
But the best Australia would offer Tokyo was a phase-out of whaling within five years. A US diplomatic cable revealed a Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade official complaining that greater compromise efforts ''bounced off'' the then environment minister, Peter Garrett.
Japan gave no indication it would be prepared to reduce numbers to an acceptable level, and the talks stalled.
Key negotiators have since left the Whaling Commission, including Palmer. (He now has what some might think an easier job - chairing a United Nations inquiry into the Gaza protest flotilla killings by Israeli soldiers last year.)
The main diplomatic game is shifting to Australia's International Court of Justice case against Japan. Advocates see strong opportunities to expose Japanese whaling before a new global audience in May, when Australia's full case, or ''memorial'', is outlined to the court.
''This case presents a real chance to expose Japan's whaling once and for all as a sham and an abuse of its rights at the IWC,'' says Mick McIntyre, from the group Whales Alive.
The WikiLeaks disclosure of US diplomatic cables revealed Australian cabinet division over the wisdom of this case, which will take years. But it undeniably demonstrates that the whaling issue is shifting from an incapable Whaling Commission and into the hands of other umpires.
The most thorough inquiry into the Ady Gil collision was conducted by Maritime New Zealand, acting as investigator for the wrecked ship's flag state. It recorded black marks against both sides.
It found the Japanese security ship Shonan Maru No. 2 had a responsibility to keep clear of the Ady Gil and had ample opportunity to do so. It also found the Ady Gil's skipper, Pete Bethune, failed to keep his vessel clear. His helmsman had limited visibility and did not see the Japanese boat until seconds before the impact.
This season Shonan Maru No. 2 was left out of the fleet. Bethune split acrimoniously from Sea Shepherd over its refusal to take him south again.
The Fisheries Agency of Japan also took an official hit over its officials' role in a fraudulent whale-meat trade exposed by Greenpeace. Recently the agency made a formal public apology for the loss of thousands of dollars' worth of meat, and censured five staff.
In Japan, where official corruption is consistently big news, damage to the whaling industry's image is significant, says Junichi Sato, of Greenpeace. ''Whaling was considered untouchable in the past,'' Sato said. ''Now this is just another corrupted operation.''
Sato was prosecuted with another man for shining a light on this trade by taking a box of whale meat and giving it to the authorities. They are appealing against their convictions.
He continues to watch the industry, despite the difficulty of making an impact on the government. The ruling Democratic Party of Japan is preoccupied with its own survival, and the Fisheries Agency still calls the shots. Asked whether Greenpeace could gain any engagement with the Democratic Party, Sato points to the fast-changing ministerial chairs and says: ''No. Not at all. It's horrible.''
However, he believes the Institute of Cetacean Research is in difficult financial straits. Two years ago, the Japanese fleet was seven ships strong. This year it has four. The whalers were also three weeks late reaching the Antarctic, and plan a much shorter season.
''I don't think they can afford to pay for a longer period,'' Sato said. ''They have a subsidy of about 800 million yen [$9.7 million] but they are missing revenue on whale-meat sales.''
Whale meat's popularity in Japan is hotly disputed. Its fans in a sprinkling of restaurants defend it; opponents believe it is increasingly seen as a throwback.
David Stevenson, a pro-whaling blogger who tracks the whale-meat trade from published Japanese data, found incoming stock more or less matched the outgoing for much of the past decade.
But consumption fell sharply in 2009. There are indications from Japanese environmentalists that consumption also fell last year. Stevenson argues this is a result of the global financial crisis. Others say more Japanese are rejecting it.
In any case, due to Sea Shepherd's obstruction, there is less whale meat reaching the docks and, as a result, less revenue to offset the institute's costs. Last year the activists cost the whalers 31 days of their season - almost a third - though they managed to catch 506 minkes and one fin whale. This year a much worse figure threatens.
On top of this short-term financial squeeze looms a greater strategic problem. The heavy fuel oil used by Nisshin Maru will be outlawed in the Antarctic by the International Maritime Organisation from August. The institute has given no indication of its intentions but Japan is one of the world's leading maritime nations and is regarded as highly compliant.
The 23-year-old Nisshin Maru may need a multimillion-dollar refit, or a government decision could be forced on whether to replace it. This is a nightmare scenario for whaling's opponents, who see a new ship as entrenching the industry for decades.
Without it, some believe whaling may quietly die, particularly if the fires of its supporters are not stoked by Sea Shepherd's direct action.
The Institute of Cetacean Research describes Sea Shepherd as ''terroristic''. But in technique its leader, Paul Watson, has more in common with Julius Caesar than al-Qaeda. Leading from the front, he besieges whaling. He believes the best way to end the hunt is to strangle its resources, and the rope appears to be tightening.