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Sea sickness

Sooner or later the anti-whaling protests will get someone killed. So why do the militants get an easy ride from the press?

28 January 2012

3:00 PM

28 January 2012

3:00 PM

The first shots have been fired in the annual battle between Japanese whaling ships and the militant anti-whaling Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, with activists forcing their way onto a Japanese support vessel, and ultimately being transferred to an Australian Customs vessel (courtesy of the taxpayer). There was something a bit farcical about the incident, but the slightly comical nature of the activists should not blind us to the fact that this whaling season is likely to see an increased level of tension and violence.

Much of the Australian media have given an easy ride to Sea Shepherd and its Canadian-born leader Paul Watson. Their focus has been on the organisation’s opposition to whaling, and Watson’s comments have been taken entirely at face value and passed on to the public without analysis or even checking.

The reason for this lackadaisical app­roach is unclear, although it probably has something to do with the fact that whaling is an obvious ‘heroes and villains’ story, with a bit of ‘if it bleeds, it leads’ thrown in. But even cursory research reveals that Sea Shepherd has a long history of violence, and that history should be made known.

Indeed, the organisation makes no secret of it. Its speciality is ramming, and several of its ships have reinforced bows designed for just that purpose. The names of victims are painted on the side of the Sea Shepherd flagship, and one of the organisation’s fundraising items is a T-shirt with the ships listed.

The first case of ramming by Sea Shepherd was of a Japanese whaling ship, the Sierra, in 1979. The Sierra was badly damaged but was towed to Lisbon. Not long after, it was sunk by limpet mines, with Sea Shepherd claiming responsibility.

Sea Shepherd also claims to have sunk two Spanish vessels, the Ibsa I and Ibsa II. In 1986, it sank two whaling vessels in Iceland. In 1988 Paul Watson arrived in Iceland and demanded to be held responsible for the sinking of the vessels, but when he realised that he faced imprisonment he changed his story to say that he had not been involved. He was ordered to leave the country and declared persona non grata, but was not charged.

In 1991, Sea Shepherd was involved in the ramming of several Mexican fishing vessels, and the following year tried to ram three Costa Rican boats. In an even weirder case, in 1992 Watson threatened to sink a fleet of ships re-enacting Columbus’s voyage to America if the participants did not sign an apology for the mistreatment of Native Americans.

Sea Shepherd says that it has sunk at least eight ships and damaged another six. Along the way, there have been incidents such as pouring petrol into the sea and trying to ignite it to set fire to boats. It makes Sea Shepherd’s claims of innocence and victimisation when their own ships have been damaged in collisions breathtakingly hypocritical, but the organisation has never been concerned with consistency.

For his part, Watson is quite happy to discuss his ideas of direct action, and laid out his methods and goals in a 1993 book Earthforce: An Earth Warrior’s Guide to Strategy. The underlying message is that his ends justify any means, and a particularly telling quote — something that the Australian media might refer to when next interviewing him — is: ‘If you don’t know an answer, a fact, a statistic, then … make it up on the spot.’

The tenor of this statement says a great deal about the organisation. If Greenpeace is characterised by a sense of smug, thin-lipped righteousness, then Sea Shepherd often seems more like a bunch of overgrown kids playing at pirates, flying a Jolly Roger-type flag and making self-congratulatory videos for YouTube. It would almost be funny, if not for the likelihood that someone is eventually going to get killed.

For Julia Gillard, Sea Shepherd is becoming a headache. Until now, her government has been able to largely ignore the organisation, pointing to its own opposition to whaling. But a new problem is that there is now a Sea Shepherd ship with an Australian flag: the Gojira (the Japanese word for the sci-fi monster Godzilla), based in Fremantle. This means that the government is responsible for ensuring that the ship abides by the relevant international and Australian laws.

A complicating factor is that the Australian government is currently engaged in a legal action against Japan under the International Whaling Commission. Japan — which often describes Sea Shepherd as a terrorist organisation — could launch a counter-claim if it believes Australia is not living up to its obligations under the convention against maritime terrorism. Japan also points out that Australia has proved to be fertile ground for Sea Shepherd in the recruitment of volunteers, and Sea Shepherd ships often use Australian ports.

Whether it wanted to or not, the Australian government currently has no power to ban Sea Shepherd ships from Australian waters or Australian ports, and little power over the organisation itself. One avenue open to it, however, is making a public statement that Australian activists who board Japanese ships will no longer receive any consular support from the government, and can expect to face charges of trespass or even piracy. But this would require a deft diplomatic touch and a consistent public line, qualities not usually associated with the Gillard government.

Nevertheless, it is soon going to have to make a decision about where it stands. Japanese support ships have begun to shadow Sea Shepherd ships, suggesting escalating tension. If Sea Shepherd continues with its usual tactics, and even tries to ram one of the Japanese ships, the Japanese can be expected to respond. Casualties are entirely possible. There is no reason to believe that Sea Shepherd will change its tactics, and Watson does not hide the fact that its ships carry guns. Their target might be the Japanese whalers, but the victim is likely to be the Gillard government.

Derek Parker author of The Courtesans: The Press Gallery in the Hawke Era.

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