Sea Shepherd anti-whaling ship damaged while chasing Japanese vessel

Though the Sea Shepherd conservation group is down a ship, a rogue wave did succeed in putting a spotlight on Japan’s annual whaling season and the activist effort to put an end to it.

Michelle McCarron/Sea Shepherd Conservation Society/AP
The Sea Shepherd Conservation Society's scout vessel Brigitte Bardot cuts through the water, in Toulon, France, June 2,. The Brigitte Bardot was seriously damaged by a giant wave Thursday, in Antarctic Sea, a major setback in the group's ongoing and sometimes violent battle with Japan's whaling fleet.

It’s that time of year again: whaling season. And for the past 25 years, whaling season has been accompanied by anti-whaling season.

The latest?  A boat – part of the whaling fleet’s nemesis, the Sea Shepherd marine conservation group – was chasing the Japanese whaling fleet in the Southern Ocean when a large wave hit the “Brigitte Bardot,” disabling it.  Anti-whaling activists: 0, rogue wave: 1

The ship is being towed to safety today after being stranded off the coast of Australia. Though the conservation group is down a ship, the rogue wave did succeed in putting a spotlight on Japan’s annual whaling season and the activist effort to put an end to it.

There has been a ban on commercial whaling for 25 years, but each fall, Japan's whaling fleet sails south to the Antarctic and returns the following spring with whales killed on what it says is a scientific research program that catches and kills about 1,000 whales each year. The fleet left Japan earlier this month with plans to catch 900 whales, mostly the non-endangered minke whales.

Last year, Japan ended its annual whale hunt early and the official reason was because the actions of the Sea Shepherd put the Japanese crew’s safety at risk. Many analysts took it to be one of the strongest signs yet that direct action from groups like Sea Shepherd and weak consumption of whale meat in Japan are having an impact on whaling.

This year, Japanese whalers have asked a US federal court judge in Seattle to order the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society to stop disrupting its whaling activities in the Southern Ocean surrounding Antarctica, according to the AP.

"The violence and attacks from the Sea Shepherd have increased year by year," said spokesman of The Tokyo-based Institute of Cetacean Research Gavin Carter in Washington.

The Japanese companies had hoped to resolve the issue of maritime safety diplomatically, he said, but decided to sue since its last whaling season was cut short by interference from activists. 

"The lawsuit is frivolous," Captain Paul Watson of the Sea Shepherd told the AP, pointing out that a US court didn't have jurisdiction over the matter. (Read Dan Murphy's Monitor piece on the aggressive tactics of Sea Shepherd's Paul Watson here)

"We're focused on one thing: putting our ship behind the Maru to block their whaling operations," he said, noting that most of the whale hunt would be over by the time the judge hears the motion for an injunction.

Activists argue that the cost to Japan, both financial and diplomatic, of “research” whaling is getting more difficult to justify at home, where there is little appetite for the fruits of the crew’s labors.

In contrast to the postwar years when whale meat formed a regular part of school lunches, modern Japan has lost its appetite for the dish, the Monitor reports. Instead, thousands of tons now sit unsold in refrigerated storehouses across the country.

Last winter, the Japan-based Dolphin and Whale Action Network estimated that stockpiles exceeded 6,000 tons – a record high.

Japanese consumers, according to one estimate, eat the equivalent of a measly four thin slices of sashimi (raw fish) a year.

Japan’s heavily subsidized whaling industry has also been hit by allegations of widespread embezzlement. [In 2010] two members of Greenpeace Japan were given suspended sentences after they intercepted whale meat they claimed had been smuggled off a whaling ship by crewmembers who intended to sell it on the black market....

And international pressure appears to be paying off. Australia, the most vocal antiwhaling nation and an important trading partner for Japan, has filed a complaint about the annual hunts with the international courts of justice at The Hague.

New Zealand voiced its disapproval recently and Latin American members of the IWC also joined the chorus, urging Japan to end the research missions and respect areas that are widely regarded as whale sanctuaries.

It took some 18 hours for a rescue boat to make it to the Brigitte Bardot and it may take as many as five days to escort it back to Fremantle, Australia. 

The Sea Shepard’s “Bob Barker” boat is still chasing the fleet, according to the Sea Shepherd webpage.

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