Rear Admiral (ret'd) James Goldrick AO, CSC is a Nonresident Fellow at the Lowy Institute.
I hold no brief for Japan's 'scientific' whaling effort. Apart from the environmental issues, it is an old fashioned rort conducted by vested interests in Japan with no consideration for either the Japanese taxpayer or the real preferences of the Japanese palate. The sooner the activity stops, the better off the average Japanese citizen will be.
The efforts of Sea Shepherd, as evidenced in the latest releases of video from both the environmentalists and the Japanese, are nevertheless counter-productive and potentially disastrous. From a mariner's perspective, I found Bob Brown's remarks about the need to end the environmental damage caused by the Japanese to be curiously ironic. To justify Sea Shepherd's manoeuvres in such a way clearly ignores problems arising from the means employed that are out of all proportion to the desired end. It smacks of fanaticism.
The most obvious danger, and one which was of considerable concern to me as Border Protection Commander when we had to deploy Oceanic Viking to monitor whaling operations in 2008, is that Sea Shepherd's actions will cause injury or loss of life.
A second concern – and the close quarters situation which occurred a few days ago had this potential – is that ships will be badly damaged or even sunk, creating significant environmental hazards, even if no people are hurt. Debris from previous Sea Shepherd efforts is already scattered around the Southern Ocean; fuel spilled from a damaged tanker (and such a vessel was one of the ships involved in the latest encounter) could wreak havoc.
But there is another potential result, which could be significant in relation to Japan's behaviour over other maritime issues, notably the Senkaku/Daioyu Islands confrontation with China. Japanese nationalism is never far below the surface and a siege mentality can quickly be created. There is evidence that this now exists in relation to China.
What Sea Shepherd is doing may well contribute to the emotional entrenchment of this outlook as Japan comes to see itself as embattled and alone in the maritime domain. If Japan is seen as being weak with Sea Shepherd, the argument will run, how will China interpret this but as a signal to continue its own hard line approach? The Japanese Prime Minister's personal electoral base is in the same region as the whaling industry and this can only increase the pressure.
Greenpeace had the good sense some years ago to realise that direct action against the Japanese whalers simply strengthened the position of whaling interests by creating sympathy for their 'persecution' by Westerners.
The only way the whaling will stop is by creating a sufficient body of opinion against it within Japan itself. Greenpeace and Japanese activists have set about this task, and their work has borne fruit. The climate of opinion has begun to change, aided considerably by the publicising of the vast amounts of whale meat that go unsold, as well as the light cast on the less than straightforward allocation of Japanese public funds to the industry.
The best way to stop Sea Shepherd is to cut its funding. And the best way for that to happen is for donors and would-be donors to think again before they commit money to the organisation. There are many more constructive and deserving environmental causes which need help and which can achieve more. But, perhaps even more important, the end of Sea Shepherd’s adventures in the Southern Ocean might do something to reduce the potential for conflict in the East China Sea.
Photo by Flickr user Konabish - Greg Bishop.