This year, Japanese whalers had their least successful hunting season on record, taking fewer than half the animals they killed during 2011-2012. The Japanese government blamed the meager harvest on “unforgivable sabotage” by the anti-whaling group Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, an accusation that Sea Shepherd claims as a badge of honor.
It was a short, dismal season for the whalers, who were followed and harassed by four Sea Shepherd vessels across the waters off southwest Australia. They returned to Japan with their lowest Antarctic catch ever: just 103 minke whales, far short of their stated goal of 935. The whalers had also set out to kill 50 humpbacks and 50 fin whales, but took none.
The tally was announced this week in Tokyo by Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Minister Yoshimasa Hayashi, who blamed Sea Shepherd for the low numbers and called clashes with the activists “sabotage.”
The hunt lasted 48 days, 21 of them spent avoiding Sea Shepherd, according to the Institute of Cetacean Research, the official name of Japan’s whaling operations. Japan has been engaged in “'research whaling,” since 1987, though catches have been shrinking in recent years, largely due to Sea Shepherd’s interventions.
Sea Shepherd claimed a victory in the ongoing conflict with the whale hunters.
“832 Minke whales not slain! 50 Humpbacks and 50 Fins not slaughtered!” exclaimed a press release from the group. “Sea Shepherd Australia is elated that we have delivered the worst season to date to these whale poachers from Japan. These poachers have shown a complete disregard for cetacean life, human life and Australian and International law,” Jeff Hansen, Sea Shepherd Australia Director, said in the release.
The lives of 932 protected whales were spared this season, the press release claimed. The loss of those commodities translated “into a financial disaster” for the whalers, Sea Shepherd asserted. The cost of overhauling just one whaling boat, the Nisshin Maru, cost $24 million, it said.
“Outfitting, fuelling and operating costs added an additional estimated $11 million. That figure may be much higher. Going on the conservative estimate of $35 million, means that it cost the whalers a minimum of $340,000 per whale. There are only two words to describe this, ‘economic lunacy,’” the statement said.
Gavin Carter, a spokesman for Japan’s Institute for Cetacean Research, told TakePart that while he could not estimate the loss, “obviously there is a research value as well as a monetary one. The illegal sabotage by Sea Shepherd has a negative impact, but I don’t have any figure that I can give you.”
Carter added that the institute is “currently involved in a legal action against Sea Shepherd.”
When asked what message the Japanese government would like to send to American readers who oppose whale hunting, Carter answered that, “Modern whaling takes place on a sustainable basis and is carried out carefully to avoid impacts on overall whale stocks,” he says.
“The consumption of whale meat is a cultural tradition in a number of countries, including Japan,” says Carter. “The International Whaling Commission (IWC) has now updated its site to reflect the latest figures for minke whales in the Antarctic. The new figure is the 515,000 'best' estimate that dates from 1992/93 - 2003/04.”
Carter also forwarded a quote from Dr. Yoshihiro Fujise, Director General of the ICR, stating that “more than half a million Antarctic minke whales can easily support an annual harvest. A quota derived from this new abundance estimate can be sustainable and have no adverse effect on the Antarctic minke whale."
Siddharth Chakravarty, captain of Sea Shepherd’s ship Steve Irwin, told TakePart that the whale hunt is an economic drain on the Japanese economy, which is still recovering from the tsunami and radiation-release twin disasters. He said the record low hunt this year will hurt even more.
“The Japanese Fisheries Agency and the ICR actually route money from disaster and tsunami relief into the whaling program in the Southern Ocean,” Chakravarty said. “A recent investigation has revealed that approximately $310 million have been granted in subsidies to the whaling industry. The economy of Japan is taking the biggest hit with the tax-payers funding an operation few care for.”
Chakravarty rejected the claims of Japanese official that Sea Shepherd carried out acts of criminal sabotage on the high seas. Despite Sea Shepherd’s successes this season, the whaling fleet rammed three Sea Shepherd vessels, and tried to sink one of them, Chakravarty said.
Legal battles between Japan and Sea Shepherd will continue as long as Japanese whaling ships appear off Australia for the annual hunt. Meanwhile, “Sea Shepherd will abide by the law, will stand fast and will ensure that the sanctity of the Southern Ocean Whale Sanctuary remains intact,” Chakravarty added.
The actions of Sea Shepherd are controversial, to be sure, and have been condemned not only by Japan, but also the government of Australia and a Federal Court in the United States. One might love them, or hate them, but the indisputable fact is that far fewer whales died this season because of their clashes with the whalers.
Sea Shepherd Australia’s Hansen said this year's campaign would “go down as the group's most successful,” and vowed to return next season.
“'I can't think of more ecological terrorism than going into a protected whale sanctuary, hunting endangered whales, and requiring a fuel tanker to go south into ice strewn waters with all the potential environmental harm involved in that,'' Hansen said.
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David Kirby, a regular contributor to the Huffington Post has been a professional journalist for 25 years and was a contracted writer for The New York Times, where he covered health and science, among other topics. He has written for national magazines and was a correspondent in Mexico and Central America from 1986-1990. His third book, “Death at SeaWorld,” was published by St. Martin’s Press. He is also an experienced writing coach and media trainer: For more info visit www.davidkirbycoaches.com