A Victory for the Sea Shepherd, and Whales?

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Sea Shepherd’s tactics in attempting to disrupt Japan’s so-called “research” whaling in the Antarctic have come in from criticism from some quarters – including, well, me – but even the whalers are crediting them, through clenched teeth, for severely limiting the number of whales killed this past season. From The Guardian:

The Nisshin Maru, the fleet’s mother ship, returned to Tokyo harbour yesterday with just 507 whales, a little over half the target catch of 935, according to the fisheries agency. The haul of minke whales and a single finback was well down on last year’s catch of 680. The fleet said Sea Shepherd’s attempts to sabotage the hunt had deprived it of 31 days’ whaling. [...] The whaling fleet’s leader, Shigetoshi Nishiwaki, said he was “furious” with Sea Shepherd for preventing it from reaching its quota during the five-month season.

An inference easily drawn from that article is that, absent Sea Shepherd’s interventions, the fleet would likely have killed all 935 whales. Sea Shepherd goes further, asserting that the whalers would have killed 1,035, and that the activists therefore “saved 528″ whales. In fact, the fleet’s self-assigned quota was for 850 minke whales, plus or minus 10 percent – i.e. 935 – as well as for 50 fin whales.

But the fleet has never come close to meeting its fin quota: over the last five seasons (including the one just completed), the fin catch has been 10, 3, 0, 1, and 1. Part of the problem may be difficulty in handling the much larger fins; while trying to winch one aboard the factory ship in the 2006-7 season, the whalers contrived to rip it in half. Prior to the 2007-8 season, Japan did announce its intention to add 50 humpbacks a year, but promptly agreed to suspend that part of the hunt as a “gesture of goodwill” prior to the 2007-8 whaling season.

In the four years since Japan massively boosted its Antarctic quota, only once has it come even close to catching 935 whales.  In the 2005/6 season, the total haul (including 10 fins) was 866. The following season, which was abbreviated by a fire that crippled the Nisshin Maru, the fleet killed 508 minkes as well as 3 fins. The last three seasons’ totals have been 551, 681, and now 507. 

But three other figures leap out at me. One, as mentioned in the clip from The Guardian, is the 31 days of whaling the whalers say they lost as a result of Sea Shepherd’s attentions. That’s a huge figure, and it would take someone even more churlish than I to deny Sea Shepherd that accomplishment. The second figure is the total number of days the fleet was in the Antarctic this past season: 97. That’s six days fewer than the previous season, and 11 days fewer than 2005-6; at the rate at which they caught whales this year, those extra 11 days would have resulted in 84 more whales.

And that’s the other interesting thing, it’s the third figure that catches the eye: in 2005/6, on those days on which they were not being harassed by activists, the fleet caught 8.62 whales a day. Since then, on days when they were free of their unwelcome pursuers, the whales-per-day rate has steadily fallen, from 8.02 to 7.87, 7.80 and now 7.67.

So, even as they supposedly increase their quota, the whalers are allowing themselves less time on the whaling grounds, and are less productive – even without the attentions of Sea Shepherd or Greenpeace - when they are there. Perhaps, given growing stockpiles of, and shrinking enthusiasm for, whale meat, the determination to make quota isn’t quite what it was.

By my calculations, Sea Shepherd’s 31 days of interference saved something like 240 whales, an immense total and a praiseworthy one, even if somewhat smaller than the total the organization is claiming for itself. But looking at some of those figures, I can’t escape the sense that, as with so much surrounding Japan’s whaling program, there’s more to it all than initially meets the eye.

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