x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 29 July 2017

The murky waters of whaling

Having forced Japanese whaling ships back to base, one lifelong environmental campaigner Paul Watson should be enjoying a moment of vindication. If he is, he is barely showing it

It is more than 30 years since the environmental campaigner, ocean-going skipper and reality TV star Paul Watson was forced out of Greenpeace. Fellow members had grown tired of the firebrand Canadian's advocacy of direct, potentially violent tactics against whalehunters operating in international waters. Watson believed then, as he believes now, that protest ships should be prepared to ram into and disable whaling vessels rather than simply running non-violent interference on their day-to-day operations. His definition of the term "activism" leans heavily on the principle of "by any means necessary".

Watson went on to establish the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, a group with its own shipping fleet and a far more muscular approach to combatting the world's whalers.

For the past four years, his organisation's activities have been the subject of Whale Wars, a documentary series which airs on the Discovery Channel and which offers a generally benevolent view of the group's modus operandi. The programme's title is also a remarkably apt indicator of its content. In an early episode, Watson and a Japanese ship traded insults and warning shots. Relations have remained frosty ever since.

Sea Shepherd's most recent "Operation No Compromise" campaign - a bluntly titled offensive that has also been documented by the Discovery Channel - won a notable victory last weekend. The Japanese Fisheries Agency announced it had curtailed its annual whale-hunting mission to the Antarctic. The agency gave the "obstructionist activities" of Watson and his crew as the reason for giving up - for now, at least.

The business of sea mammal hunting operates, almost by definition, in murky waters. Commercial whaling has been outlawed for 25 years, although three nations - Japan, Norway and Iceland - have continued hunting for scientific purposes. The Japanese programme is without question the most aggressive and the most consistent of the trio. Its fleet kills up to 945 whales in each hunting season, for the reported purpose of assessing their impact on fish stocks.

This should be a big moment for Watson, vindicating a lifetime's struggle in one of the world's most inhospitable environments. But he isn't showing it. In the hour of arguably his greatest triumph, the firebrand is barely even smouldering.

"I think it is premature to see this as a victory for the whales", he said on his blog, writing from the swelling battlefields of the Antarctic Ocean. "What we do know is that the whalers will not be killing any whales for the next few weeks. Not because of any suspension, but because it is physically impossible for them to do so."

On humane grounds alone, it would be hard not to applaud Watson for this outcome. Over the years, his convictions have helped prolong the lives of hundreds of examples of an endangered species.

There is, however, the question of his methods. While the self-imposed quota system used by Japan in each hunting season seems outrageous - the slaughter of nearly a thousand whales every year is a huge number - their programme operates within the letter of international law. Whether it adheres to its spirit is much harder to believe.

But does this really justify sustained acts of piracy, by an aggressive protest group that has the good fortune to be blessed with the backing of a better public relations machine than, say, a bunch of pirates operating in speedboats off the Somalian coast? Probably not. In this case though, two wrongs may just have produced the right outcome - at least, that is, for now.