Thursday, 21 February 2013

Win for Whales

Interesting news from the waters around the Antarctic: The 5th largest naval battle of the 21st century so far has resulted in zero deaths and zero sinkings. It's a weird story, if you haven't followed the history leading up to it, but on the Blatantly Evil side were vessels of the Japanese whaling fleet, who've been caught on film over the last month or so breaking a number of international maritime and environmental laws, including apparent violations of Australian territorial waters and transferring heavy fuel oil in protected environments. They're not even pretending to be law-abiding good guys anymore. On the other side were the vessels of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society. I've called out the Sea Shepherds here before for selling bullcrap on their site, but I've always been thoroughly damn impressed with their anti-whaling operations, which is and should be their real line of business.

The really short history is that most whale species were almost driven extinct by human activities, so the international (human) community agreed to ban whale hunting. But the few states that made money that way forced in a loophole allowing the hunting of whales for "scientific research", on behalf of organisations like the Institute of Cetacean Research, which is scientific in the same way that the Discovery Institute is a credible research organisation in the field of evolutionary biology, i.e. not in the slightest. Japan, currently the most invested whaling state (though only since relatively recently in history, if Cracked is to believed; Wikipedia suggests it's like that, but more complicated) has made no secret of the fact that almost all the whales they kill are sold off commercially, mostly as "food". (Insert vegan scowl face here.)

"Many nations understand why whale murder is monstrous ... We use the word 'monster' to describe an animal somehow different from us, somehow scary. But who's the more monstrous? The whales, who ask only to be left alone to sing their rich and plaintive songs, or the humans, who set out to hunt them and destroy them and have brought many whale species close to the edge of extinction?"
 - Carl Sagan, Cosmos, part 11, 'The Persistence of Memory'

So, since it's a purely commercial operation in reality, Sea Shepherd struck on the clever strategy of ruining the hunt's commercial value by pushing up the killers' cost per whale killed as much as possible. It took a bit of experimentation, but eventually they found that simply sailing up right behind the whalers' factory ship (the Nishin Maru) they could block the rear access ramp used by the smaller killing ships to deliver their corpses into the mother ship's hold, thus shutting down the entire process. Naturally, the whalers have tried various things (including stun grenades and water cannons against Sea Shepherd crews, and drifting cables to snare up propellers and at least two previous ramming incidents against the Shepherds' ships) to escape this, but the Shepherds got so good at this icy dance that the Japanese (that is, the entire state of Japan, since tax money subsidises the hunters) have made a net loss off the operation for the last few years. And this year, the Shepherds found the Nishin Maru and started trailing it so soon that it was already looking likely to be the best year yet.

This seems to have freaked the captain of the Nishin Maru completely the fuck out, so that he ordered his ship to start ramming everyone else around him, including his fleet's own refuelling vessel, the Sun Laurel. The Sea Shepherd vessels seem to have survived the confrontation adequately, and they're now escorting the also-damaged Sun Laurel out of the area. Since Sun Laurel is owned by an outside contractor, not the Japanese government, they're presumably not terribly motivated to stick around after taking ramming damage from their own employers, but I haven't seen any statements from them at all, so I'm just guessing. [EDIT: Looks like I guessed more or less right.]

Note that all of this is happening while passing through chunks of ice.

I haven't seen the full video yet, so I may be getting some details wrong, but just looking at the picture above, it was clearly some unusually busy, crowded ocean out there. The potential for an accident was already high. But the fact that the Nishin Maru managed to ram 4 other vessels suggests it was intentional, rather than accidental, except presumably in the case of the Sun Laurel. It's lucky nobody was hurt. And it's truly fucking fantastic that the whalers shot themselves in the metaphorical foot by cutting off their own damn fuel supply, effectively ending their operations for this season. I don't think anyone's happy about all those collisions, but the bottom line is, the whales are safe again for now, and the fact that Sea Shepherd managed it with entirely non-violent tactics also sets a fine example.

What should really be happening, though, is that one or more national navies or coast guards should be down there, enforcing international law properly, rather than leaving it up to dedicated but not legally empowered private individuals. I imagine one stern warning backed up with the threat of official, legal sanctions (e.g. jail time and impounding of vessels) could have settled this just as effectively as all the years of ballsy blockading by the Sea Shepherds. It might be nice if those stupidly expensive frigates South Africa bought could find some use in policing this sort of thing.

I'll also take a jab at Greenpeace here: They have ships too, but all along have explicitly refused to help Sea Shepherd in any way, or to engage in any similarly helpful anti-whaling operations, preferring instead to waste everyone's time spreading baseless fear about genetically modified crops. <sarcasm>Way to go, Greenpeace.</sarcasm>