Sea Shepherd, the polarizing marine conservation society made internationally famous by an Animal Planet documentary series called Whale Wars, claimed an early victory against the Japanese whaling fleet this week. The captain of Sea Shepherd’s flagship, the MY Steve Irwin, said that the Japanese factory ship Nisshin Maru has been chased out of the Antarctic Treaty Area for the time being.
“[The Nisshin Maru] is currently being taken about 400 miles away from the whale killing grounds,” Captain Siddharth Chakravarty told ABC News. “We’re returning back to the ice edge to stand guard. Should the whaling ships return again, we’ll be there to drive them out again from the sanctuary.”
The dispersal of the Japanese fleet comes after photographs and video of three dead minke whales on the blood-soaked deck of the Nisshin Maru circulated around news outlets and social media on Monday. The Japanese vessel was spotted in the Southern Ocean (Antarctic Ocean), within the boundaries of a whale sanctuary established by the International Whaling Commission (IWC) in 1994.
Despite an international moratorium on commercial whaling that has been in place since 1986, the Japanese fleet operates within a loophole that allows whales to be killed for scientific research. The Japanese Whaling Association, which has referred to Sea Shepherd’s interference as “eco-terrorism,” claims that negative Western attitudes toward whaling present an unfair cultural bias.
“Asking Japan to abandon this part of its culture would compare to Australians being asked to stop eating meat pies, Americans being asked to stop eating hamburgers and the English being asked to go without fish and chips,” reads a statement on the group’s website. “Because of strong demand for whale meat in the domestic market, whaling can still continue to be viable.”
That claim appears murky, as whale is far from ubiquitous in Japanese eateries. A 2012 report claimed that 908 tons of that year’s 1,211-ton catch went unsold, and more recent reports claim that the Japanese whaling industry would fold if not for generous government subsidies.
“The fleet … costs the taxpayer about $10 million a year,” said GlobalPost. “Last year, the subsidy included $20 million in funds intended to aid the reconstruction of the region devastated by the March 2011 tsunami. The government’s excuse: that some of the affected communities had a tradition of coastal whale hunting.”
This support for an unpopular and unprofitable industry is likely rooted in nationalism, rather than bonafide scientific research or food production. Right-wing groups have staged counter-protests at anti-whaling rallies, claiming that the practice is rooted in Japanese culture and traditions while telling activists to “Get out of Japan.”
National Geographic quotes Leah R. Gerber, a marine biology professor and whaling expert, as saying that young Japanese are generally opposed to whaling, but for some from the older generations it remains a matter of national pride. “When these older people move out of positions of power and more enlightened people take over and start to negotiate, things will change.”
Change may already be coming, in the form of an International Court of Justice ruling expected early this year. In 2010, the government of Australia lodged a complaint with The Hague, stating that the annual Japanese whale hunt is illegal. New Zealand officially joined the litigation against Japan last year.
“We’ve made a very strong case that Japanese so-called scientific whaling isn’t scientific at all and that the court should bring down a ruling to force them to desist,” Murrary McCully, New Zealand’s Foreign Minister, told Radio New Zealand. “This is something that’s being carried out substantially for the purposes of pride.”