Whale Wars: Sea Shepherd lodges piracy charge against Japanese whalers

Paul Watson and his Sea Shepherd Conservation Society allege piracy following the collision between the antiwhaling ship Ady Gil and Japan's Shonan Maru Number 2 earlier this week.

JoAnne McArthur/Sea Shepherd Conservation Society/AP
This photo provided by the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society shows the sheared off bow of the Ady Gil, after a collision with a Japanese whaling ship in the frigid waters of Antarctica on Wednesday. The conservation group said its ship was deliberately rammed by the Shonan Maru, a Japanese whaling vessel, near Commonwealth Bay.

Paul Watson and his antiwhaling Sea Shepherd Conservation Society are keeping up the pressure after the collision earlier this week between their high-tech speedboat the Ady Gil and a larger vessel pulling security for a Japanese whaling fleet in the Southern Ocean.

On Friday, Sea Shepherd filed a legal complaint against the Japanese whaling fleet in the Netherlands, where Mr. Watson's flagship, the Steve Irwin, is registered. "We filed a complaint for criminal prosecution with our prosecutor, requesting the start of an investigation into what we consider to be a crime -- piracy, actually -- committing violence on the high seas," Liesbeth Zegveld, a legal adviser for the group, told Reuters.

Also on Friday, the group announced that it had abandoned efforts to tow the Gil, which had its bow sheered off in the collision, to port. The vessel, which was built for $2.5 million under the moniker Earthrace and circled the globe in a world record 60 days, was donated to Sea Shepherd last year. The boat, which had been currently valued at $1.5 million by Watson, sank after its tow line snapped.

Earlier this week, authorities in New Zealand, where the Gil was registered, and in Australia, which has responsibility for search and rescue operations in the area of the Southern Ocean where the collision took place, said they would investigate the incident. For its part, Japan's Institute for Cetacean Research (ICR), the government-funded body that finances and oversees the country's annual whale hunt, accused Sea Shepherd of "extremist" and illegal behavior.

Will legal charges stick? What does the video indicate?

But it's far from certain that legal filings will lead anywhere, and legal analysts say a charge of piracy against the Maru, which had been consistently harassed by the smaller Gil, is unlikely to stick.

There are two videos of the collision, one from the Japanese ship and one from the larger Sea Shepherd ship, the Bob Barker.

Supporters of Watson's Sea Shepherds say the collision was a result of deliberate action by the Maru. Critics of the group have charged that the Gil's actions made a collision unavoidable.

To this observer, the video is inconclusive.

But the consensus of experienced mariners and sea captains who have e-mailed me is that, while it's the responsibility of all vessels at sea to take every precaution to avoid a collision, and so to a certain extent there is blame to be spread around, that smaller, more maneuverable boats like the Gil are generally expected to have more responsibility for avoiding collisions, since they can turn faster.

"Under the long established international rules of maritime navigation, the smaller, more agile vessel is expected to remain clear of and not impede the operations or navigation of the larger, less nimble vessel," is how one former mariner put it.

In some cases, he wrote, "a smaller sailing vessel or a manpowered [rowed] vessel would have the right of way over a larger motorized vessel, except the rules are very clear that smaller vessels, even if they have the right of way by class, must make every effort to avoid putting themselves into situations in which a larger vessel has to yield to them, simply because of the basic hazard and risk of expecting that a larger vessel could see a smaller vessel in time to react. So, as we used to say in the Navy and in the Merchant Marine, the 'law of gross tonnage' trumps all," he wrote.

The Collision Regulations of the International Maritime Organization, issued in 1972 and still in force, would seem to back up the stance that more of the fault lies with the Gil, since it had spent days deliberately approaching and interfering with the operations of the Maru, by darting across its bow, aiming lasers designed to temporarily blind the Japanese mariners, and seeking to foul its propeller with cables. The video below, from just before Christmas, demonstrates some of this activity (warning: the video is accompanied by blaring techno music.)

The regulations say that "every vessel [is] directed to keep out of the way of another vessel shall, so far as possible, [and to] take early and substantial action to keep well clear." The regulations also say that a powered ship shall keep out of the way of "a vessel restricted in her ability to maneuver" and of a "vessel engaged in fishing."

Watson's group has long said these sorts of regulations don't apply to their efforts, because they deem the actions of the Japanese whalers to be illegal and say that they are vigilantes enforcing laws that vested authorities refuse to do.

Watson has made no secret of his penchant for high-profile actions in pursuit of a cause. "The more dramatic you can make it, the more contoversial it is, the more publicity you will get. If you've got film of it, all the better. The drama translates into exposure," he was quoted as saying in a book published in 1990.

The allegation of "piracy" against the Japanese is also not the first case of what appears to be a hyperbolic charge against the whalers by Sea Shepherd.

In a 2008 episode of Whale Wars, the Animal Planet reality TV show that chronicles the antiwhaling operations of Watson and his crew, Watson says: "one of the tactics we want to do is get the people onboard to be held hostage by Japanese whalers. Do we have any volunteers?" Two of Watson's crew then approach and illegally board the Maru from a speedboat. The men were detained by the Japanese whalers for a few days, then released unharmed. Watson alleged that the men had been taken "hostage." (video of the boarding below).

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