Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Sea Shepherd activists clash with Japanese whaler in Southern Ocean

Marine conservation society reports double ramming and calls on Australia to send naval vessel to scene.

Anti-whaling activists say a Japanese whaling ship has rammed two of their vessels, marking the first clash of this winter's "whale wars" in the freezing Antarctic seas.

The marine conservation group Sea Shepherd called on Australia to send a naval vessel to the area after claims that the whaling fleet's factory ship, the Nisshin Maru, had collided with two of its vessels including its flagship, the Steve Irwin.

"The Nisshin Maru has rammed the Steve Irwin and the Bob Barker but both vessels continue to hold their positions," Paul Watson, Sea Shepherd's founder, said in a statement.

Watson, who is on an Interpol wanted list for allegedly endangering a fishing vessel crew in 2002, accused the Japanese coastguard personnel accompanying the whalers of throwing stun grenades at activists.

The International Whaling Commission banned commercial whaling in 1986 but a clause in the moratorium allows Japan to catch just fewer than 1,000 whales in the Antarctic every winter for "scientific research". The meat from the hunts is sold legally, on the open market, although Japan's appetite for it has declined dramatically since the 1960s.

In recent years, Sea Shepherd has prevented the fleet from reaching its quota, of about 950 minke whales and about 50 fin whales. However, Professor Masayuki Komatsu, a former agriculture ministry official, told the Guardian recently the whalers had left port later than usual at the end of last year, and were expected to catch only about 300 whales.

Sea Shepherd said the 8,000-tonne Nisshin Maru, which processes slaughtered whales, had also collided with the Bob Barker, causing the latter temporarily to take on water in its engine room. No one was reported injured in the collision.

The clashes, near the Australian Davis research base, on the Antarctic coast, came after activists had spent two days trying to prevent the Nisshin Maru from reaching the whaling fleet's tanker, Sun Laurel, to refuel.

Sea Shepherd said three of its boats, including the two that were damaged, had been positioned near the Japanese factory ship and tanker when the incident occurred.

The Cetacean Research Institute, a quasi-governmental body that oversees the hunts, said it was investigating the incident.

Japan's consul general in Melbourne, Hidenobu Sobashima, called on Sea Shepherd to end its confrontations with the fleet. "All obstructive activities of Sea Shepherd that endanger life of the crew and property, and safe navigation at sea, should be stopped," the Sydney Morning Herald quoted him as saying.

The latest incident is one of many clashes between Sea Shepherd and the whaling fleet over the past nine years. The most serious came in 2010, when the group's hi-tech trimaran, the Ady Gil, sank after colliding with a whaling ship.

Last December, a US court granted a temporary injunction to the Japanese whalers forbidding Sea Shepherd from sailing within 500 yards of the whaling vessels.

On Monday, Watson wrote in the Guardian that Japan's whalers had "never before been more recklessly aggressive".

Sea Shepherd's director, Bob Brown, said the group's two vessels had been repeatedly rammed, and called on the Australian government to send a naval ship to the area.

"It is illegal to be ramming ships in any seas, anywhere on the planet," the former Australian Greens party leader told reporters in Melbourne. "It is illegal for a tanker to be carrying heavy fuel oil into Antarctic waters under international law."

The Australian government, a vocal critic of whaling, has taken its campaign to end the annual hunts in the Southern Ocean to the international court of justice, in the Hague; a ruling could come later this year.

Australia's environment minister, Tony Burke, said in a statement: "The government condemns so-called scientific whaling in all waters, and we urge everyone in the ocean to observe safety at sea."

Source: Guardian

Image courtesy of guano via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)