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Whaling warriors weigh in

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

A WHALE-hunting season of high drama on the huge swells of the Great Southern Ocean has culminated in a precisely structured and exquisitely polite meeting of government ministers in Tokyo.

The water cannon, whale blood, stink bombs and yelled imprecations have been matched with the deep bows of Japanese diplomacy.

Australian Foreign Minister Stephen Smith met his Japanese counterpart, Masahiko Koumura, on Thursday night, and the vexed issue of whaling was high on the agenda.

The Japanese whaling fleet, hunting as many as 1000 of the giant mammals for "scientific research", has been harassed and monstered by both Greenpeace and the vigilante conservationist group Sea Shepherd.

Yet as the protesters steamed back to Australia, at the very time Smith was meeting Koumura, the Japanese fleet began hunting again, harvesting as many as five minke whales.

Few environmental battles excite the emotions as much as the fight against whaling.

Played out on the southern oceans, and in newspapers and on computer screens and television sets across the nation, it could easily turn nasty for the Government.

In Tokyo yesterday, Smith fenced with reporters intent on quizzing him on the whaling issue.

No, he said, it had no potential to derail relations with Japan. Yes, Australia wanted Japan to stop whaling.

"This is an area where Australia and Japan agree to disagree, and the fact that we have a fundamentally good relationship enables us to put forward the strong view that we believe that the Japanese should cease whaling," he said, adding that Australia would not assist any third party to mount a legal challenge against whaling.

After a gruelling battle with whalers and the Southern Ocean weather, the Sea Shepherd vessel Steve Irwin is scheduled to return to Melbourne for refuelling and repairs.

Captain Paul Watson swears he will return to the Australian Whale Sanctuary within a week or 10 days.

The Greenpeace vessel Esperanza, by contrast, is due to end its southern voyage when it arrives in Hobart today.

Greenpeace says the Esperanza will not return to the Southern Ocean because it probably would not be able to find the whaling fleet again, and because it is needed for other battles.

Greenpeace whales campaigner Rob Nicoll said the organisation would move to consolidate anti-whaling feeling in Japan, but the Esperanza's retreat has been pooh-poohed by the Sea Shepherd's Watson.

By his lights, Sea Shepherd has had its most successful Southern Ocean sortie to date.

Two crew members boarded the Japanese harpoon vessel Yushin Maru No2.

They were held on board for three days while headlines exploded around the world.

One observer says Watson must have been "bursting with glee" when the Japanese held on to his crew members, and the story kept rolling on.

Greenpeace has distanced itself from the Sea Shepherd's tactics; in fact it has long refused to provide the co-ordinates of the Japanese whaling fleet to the Sea Shepherd crew, infuriating Watson.

Greenpeace limits itself to daubing slogans on the whalers, and "bearing witness" by sending photos and films of the hunt around the world. The mantra is that Greenpeace defends whales, it does not attack the whalers.

Sea Shepherd takes direct action, trying to foul propellers, board the ships, and even ram them.

At one stage Watson wanted to implement "Operation Arsehole", in which a redundant vessel would be rammed into a whaler's slipway, like a "giant steel enema".

Whatever the reason, ordinary Japanese have seemingly begun to take notice of the whaling controversy; or perhaps the dramatic stunts in the Southern Ocean have simply sharpened opinion on both sides of the divide.

Japanese Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda was questioned about whaling in parliament after the Sea Shepherd action, and Greenpeace claims hits on its Japanese-language anti-whaling campaign website rocketed to 10,000 an hour at one point this season.

Greenpeace spokeswoman Sara Holden has made it clear that raising the hackles of Japanese nationalism by attacking their boats and crews could easily be counter-productive.

The Japanese public could come to see the protesters as the enemy of Japan.

Her colleague, Nicoll, says the nationalist feeling can be distilled into a single phrase: "If you're anti-whaling, you're anti-Japanese."

Watson thinks differently.

He rejects the idea that he is an eco-terrorist, or that Sea Shepherd is a radical organisation, even though he is happy to claim Sea Shepherd has exacted vengeance on empty whaling ships.

"We've sunk nine whaling ships worldwide," he says merrily. "We've never regarded ourselves as a radical organisation, we're not even a protest organisation. What I've done for 30 years is intervene in criminal activities."

He believes Sea Shepherd's determination to physically prevent whales being taken is legitimate.

"It's a difference in strategy," he says via satellite phone from the Southern Ocean. "And for the first time in Japan, these issues have been publicised by Japanese media."

Regardless of their differences concerning tactics, everyone involved in the battle against whaling agrees the Japanese people are pivotal to the debate.

Japan has for years been trying hard to overturn the moratorium on whaling imposed by the International Whaling Commission, and in the meantime harvests 1000 fin and minke whales a year in the name of scientific research.

It is no secret that little research is done, and much of the whale meat ends up on Japanese dinner tables.

Even though demand for the dense flesh is declining, the Japanese Government continues to subsidise the hunt.

National Geographic journalist Peter Heller is the author of a new book on whaling titled The Whale Warriors (HarperCollins), an account of a two-month Sea Shepherd voyage in the Southern Ocean in the 2005-06 season.

He believes the Japanese determination to protect the whaling industry has become a matter of national pride, buttressed by fear that giving way on whales could encourage attempts to limit their fishing industry.

"The Japanese get 60 per cent of their protein from seafood; they have to be feeling the squeeze," he says. "It will be interesting to see if (Prime Minister Kevin) Rudd will stand up to the Japanese."

Sea Shepherd's Watson says the Australian Government's actions in the Southern Ocean are ridiculously feeble in what is, after all, a designated whale sanctuary.

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