Whale Wars!!

Lemieuxblog's favorite shot of the Gojira

Sea Shepherd's high-speed Gojira. Credit: AP Photo/Eye in the Sky Magazine

Confession: I am absolutely captivated by this show. It combines so many of my personal interests: Political activism, media operations, asymmetric warfare, military technique, strategy, and tactical evolution. As my roommate says, it’s uniquely respectable as a reality show in that it is not “a bunch of assholes fighting to be the biggest asshole;” the cameramen are on scene with a crew that would be down in Antarctica campaigning whether the camera was there or not.

I’ve been planning for some time to write a series of posts about the show.  I’ve made many similar promises to myself in the past that I then failed to keep, so I’m changing my plan for this series.  Later posts will come as I’m inspired to write them rather than as a self-imposed program.  When the Whale Wars season begins this summer, I’ll write about each of the episodes as they air.

It’s important to point out that I learned most of what I know about Sea Shepherd from the show, Whale Wars, which Animal Planet edits with a very sympathetic eye. The Sea Shepherd captain, Paul Watson, has a history of borderline ecoterrorism, ramming whaling vessels and threatening seal clubbers with their own clubs. However, the activity depicted on the show does not fall into this rubric.  Watson claims that Sea Shepherd policy for the Southern Ocean is merely to obstruct operations and not to ram vessels or attack crewmembers.  After watching Episode Nine of Season Three, I will say that the operations conducted by the Japanese whaling crew and the Sea Shepherds have progressed to what I would characterize as low-level naval warfare with both sides dabbling in some degree of lethal force.

When I first started watching the show, I sympathized with the Japanese as I think most Americans do. Over time, I came to side with the Sea Shepherds. I know that this is exactly the purpose of the show.  I think my change of heart is worth exploring as an example of how violence can undermine support for the powerful.

The Japanese appear to be operating within the bounds of international law only insofar as they were able to manipulate that law so that it does not make the world a better place as it was originally meant to. Japan, along with Iceland and Norway, wrangled a workaround to an International Whaling Commission (IWC) ban on commercial whaling in the Antarctic by agreeing to kill whales only for scientific research.  They ignored IWC resolutions, passed in 2005 and 2007, urging them to convert to non-lethal research. Instead, Japan harvests within a self-imposed limit of 935 Minke whales, 50 Humpbacks, and 50 Fin whales.  After logging some data on the whales’ stomach contents, migratory patterns, etc., the whale meat is packaged and shipped back to Japan, where it is sold on the open market. Each whale is said to fetch upwards of $500,000.  All in all, it has been a very conveniently profitable “research” industry (though Watson asserted in a recent editorial that the whaling company now appears unable to cover costs).

According to the 2005 resolution, Japan killed 6,800 Antarctic Minke whales in the first 18 years of their scientific whaling exception, compared with 840 killed by Japan globally in the prior 31 years of the international moratorium on commercial whaling.  While it’s reasonable to believe that the Japanese are recording the scientific data as they claim, I see no way in which the benefit of the scientific data outweighs the harm caused by killing the whales. The above mentioned resolutions make it clear that the scientific community does not highly value the data gleaned from the killing of these whales.

As the Whale Wars saga goes on, it becomes increasingly apparent that the Japanese are willing to risk the lives of the Sea Shepherds in order to continue their “scientific” whaling program.  The worst Sea Shepherd tactics amount to brinksmanship, in which the whalers are compelled to react lest injury befall them and the Sea Shepherds alike.  The whaler’s tactics, however, have progressed from very defensive attempts to evade or ignore the Shepherds up to arguably lethal ones like throwing heavy bolts and chunks of metal at the rigid inflatable while moving at high speed, to clearly lethal attacks in season three including the ramming and slicing in two of the Ady Gil. It’s hard to imagine such tactics being so enthusiastically adopted merely in defense of scientific curiosity. I have very little sympathy for profit motive when it is in tension with altruism.

The Sea Shepherds should show regard for the safety of the Japanese and they lose political legitimacy as their tactics become more hazardous.  They (mostly at Watson’s command and with what appears to be visible consternation on the part of some crewmembers) sometimes commit acts that I find indefensible to obstruct whaling efforts.  However indefensible these acts may be, I find it even less acceptable for the Japanese to more and more deliberately risk the lives of activists in the name of profit.

And with that, my Whale Wars analysis is kicked off.  Good times ahead.

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