The Sea Shepherd Conservation Society is understandably proud to have forced an early end to Japan's whaling effort this season in the Antarctic, and to have played a role, perhaps, in bringing an end to whaling in the region.
It's also understandable that the many critics of Sea Shepherd and Paul Watson, the group's controversial leader, have fallen silent during the past week.
That's because Sea Shepherd's relentless harassment -- all those stink bombs, prop-fouling ropes and near other disruptive measures -- has, in fact, made a difference.
Though it's naive to believe Japanese whalers have harpooned their last leviathan, it seems that the nation's so-called "research" whaling program is either near death or seriously diminished.
That's probably due more to economic realities and increasing international opposition than fears of facing Sea Shepherd activists at sea. However, the Sea Shepherd presence -- this was the group's seventh consecutive harassment campaign -- has reduced the number of whales being killed, especially during the past two campaigns, providing for Japan's Fisheries Agency a smaller return on its investment.
Watson, in an interview Sunday night on "Fish Talk Radio" in Southern California, said Sea Shepherd's objective all along has been to "bankrupt" the Japanese whaling program, and that "it looks like we've finally succeeded."
Japan has used a "lethal research" loophole in the wording of a longstanding International Whaling Commission ban on commercial whaling to justify its hunts. The program, which is funded by government subsidies and the sale of whale meat, is deeply in debt.
Japanese whalers annually target about 900 minke whales and 50 fin whales, despite a shrinking demand for whale meat domestically. They succeeded in killing only 174 minke whales and two fin whales this season. They killed 506 whales last season.
Fisheries Agency officials have acknowledged that the whaling ships are not fast enough to outrun Sea Shepherd boats. According to the online newspaper, Yomiuri Daily, officials with Japan's Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Ministry recently discussed the possibility of ending research whaling in the Antarctic. But the same story quoted Minister Michihiko Kano as saying, "We can't say anything definite about that."
A high-ranking ministry official, who chose to remain anonymous, revealed that options under consideration include the continuation of research whaling, but with a Japan Coast Guard escort; building new vessels that are faster than Sea Shepherd's; replacing research whaling with commercial whaling; continuing with the current program; and ending the program.
The first two options are too costly and not practical. The third would involve coming to an accord with the IWC so that some level of commercial whaling could legally be carried out. The fourth is not practical given the Sea Shepherd factor. The fifth, of course, is what most people outside of Japan are hoping for.
It'll be interesting to see how this plays out over the next year or so.
-- Pete Thomas
Photo: Sea Shepherd crew members gather at the bow of the Bob Barker during this season's Southern Ocean campaign against Japanese whaling. Credit: Sam Sielen / Sea Shepherd