"We now have a real whale war on our hands," said Paul Watson of Sea Shepherd after a collision between his vessel, the Ady Gil, and the Japanese whaling ship Shonan Maru No.2 tore the bow off the former and ultimately resulted, Watson says, in its sinking. (The Institute of Cetacean Research, which runs the whaling program, has posted photographs claiming the Ady Gil has in fact been abandoned and is leaking oil, but given its history of truth distortion probably doesn't deserve the benefit of the doubt. Presumably, Animal Planet's cameras will ultimately reveal all).
But do we really have a whale war on our hands? And if we do, should we?
Watson is adamant that the confrontation in the Southern Ocean is at least the moral equivalent of more prominent conflicts:
"My crew are well aware of the risks that we have to take to protect
whales down here. I think those risks are worth taking," he told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. "I can tell you now that if the oceans die, civilisations collapse and we all die. People die everyday to protect oil wells and real estate and we
call them heroes and pin medals on them. I think protecting the
diversity of oceans… is a far more noble cause."
Yes, well. Leaving aside the self-promotional hyperbole, the question remains of whether this is really how we need to be framing the ongoing effort to protect whales and other species, and indeed whether such talk helps or potentially even harms the very cause it seeks to advance.
Look, I'm not a disinterested observer in all of this. I've been involved in the campaign against whaling for a large part of my life. In 1987, I and two colleagues founded the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society. That same year, I attended my first meeting of the International Whaling Commission. Two years later, I joined Greenpeace; between 1991 and 2002 I was a leader of four voyages to confront the Japanese whaling fleet in the Antarctic, which formed the core of my book The Whaling Season.
So I am not without bias. I have seen firsthand the willingness of the whaling fleet to engage in dangerous tactics; during our first encounter in 1992, the factory ship Nisshin Maru steamed past on our port side and cut across us in an attempt to force a collision, and on two other encounters, in which I was not involved, the whalers did collide with the Greenpeace vessel Arctic Sunrise.
With each passing year, it became apparent that the whalers were becoming less tolerant of our presence, more prepared to continue with their whaling in front of us (at first, they tried to keep evidence of what they were doing away from our cameras; after a few years, they no longer seemed to care), and more willing to just barge our boats out of the way. Each time tensions reached boiling point in the dangerous Antarctic environment, we responded by trying to ratchet things back; during my final expedition, in the 2001-02 season, we actively went out of our way to scale down the confrontational aspect, with our boat crews reaching out to shake hands with the crew of the whaling vessels.
Watson, in contrast, seems determined to respond to each escalation with further escalation, and proudly so. To my mind, along that path trouble lies. Yes, the Shonan Maru No.2 was reckless, dangerous and irresponsible to plow ahead with the Ady Gill in its path, but given that Sea Shepherd crews had been shining lasers at the whalers and attempting to snag the whaling ships' propellers, they can hardly complain about rough treatment.
There is a larger issue, though, beyond the risks of increasing violence in a pristine yet hostile environment, and that is simply whether confrontational tactics are needed or even helpful any more. After my final expedition, I personally felt they were not; they have had their time and place, were vital for bringing the reality of whaling into people's living rooms. But the world is not going to be any more aware that whaling is still taking place; in most countries of the world, populace and governments alike are generally against it.
But as far as whaling in the Antarctic is concerned, only one country matters; evidence suggests that a plurality of Japanese people are, frankly, indifferent toward whaling (opens PDF), and that if anything is likely to harden Japanese people's attitudes in its favor, it is anti-whaling campaigns by westerners.
The key to any successful campaign is to know your audience: who you need to influence, and how. Appealing to American and European environmentalists is fine, but it is in Japan that the final decisions to end whaling need to be made. Some of those decisions, it seems, may in fact be taking place – but not for ideological or conservationist reasons. Whaling, frankly, is expensive, and the new Japanese government has targeted aspects of it in an attempt to eliminate budgetary waste.
A bureaucrat's pen may be less exciting than a high-seas battle; but it may ultimately prove the more effective tool with which, finally, to save the whales.