On the high seas around Antarctica, things are getting ugly.
For the crew of the “Steve Irwin”, belonging to the anti-whaling activists Sea Shepherd, this is old news. They’re there to prevent the slaughter of hundreds of minke whales by Japanese sailors on three vessels including the factory ship Nisshin Maru – technically a research vessel, but also involved in whalemeat processing that ends up on Japanese dinner tables. The whales are being hunted legally thanks to a loophole in in the International Whaling Commission’s 1986 moratorium, allowing a percentage of whales to be collected for “research” purposes – and in 2007 this represented 900 minke that international law turned a blind eye to. While most of the world condemns the use of whalemeat for food, in Japan, whalemeat is on sale to the public (some of it supplied by other countries, but some from the animals allegedly killed for scientific reasons).
Sea Shepherd see this as monstrous. Every year its staff take to the seas to harry the whaling fleet, hoping to disrupt their activities enough to prevent the killing. It’s a fraught but essentially peaceful protest – until now. The protesters are reporting that this year they’ve been met with a water cannon, airborne balls of solid lead or brass, and most insidiously…
“The factory ship the Nisshin Maru and the two harpoon vessels in the fleet are equipped with long-range acoustical devices. This is a military grade weapon system that sends out mid to high frequency sound waves designed to disorient and possibly incapacitate personnel.”
– Sea Shepherd
The response from the Institute of Cetacean Research (a private organisation backed by the Japanese government) replied thus:
“We can neither confirm nor deny the strategies employed by the Japanese research vessels to protect themselves from the criminal actions committed by the Dutch vessel. We can say, however, that all legal means available will be used to ensure these pirates do not board Japanese ships or threaten the lives of the crews or the safety of the vessels.”
The question is what actions constitute “legal means”. Is the use of non-lethal sonic weaponry legal, even if it isn’t ethical or the slightest bit safe? And might such devices affect the whales themselves? (If they’re driven away by the sound, this may turn out to be an unexpected bonus for Sea Shepherd). Without a clear legal challenge – either the changing of international law or the infringement of it – Japanese whalehunting seems sure to continue.
For now, the duel on the high seas continues in front of the world media – but just how ugly is it going to get?
Image: René Ehrhardt