It was a comparatively minor entry in the annual, ritualized battle between pro- and anti-whalers. Japan’s whaling fleet pulled out of Shimonoseki port near Nagasaki earlier this week on its way to another controversial four-month Antarctic cull. In the fine print of the 2011 departure, however, was a PR landmine that would detonate and send ripples across the world.
Traveling with the whalers was what the Japanese media called “beefed-up security,” a euphemism for a party of coastguard officers who would ride shotgun in the converted harpoon ship Shonan Maru 2, making sure the fleet achieved its target catch. That vessel gained some notoriety last year when it plowed through the Ady Gil ocean-going speedboat, cutting it in half.
Equipped with unspecified “security equipment” — most likely water cannons and inflatable dinghies, at least — the Shonan Maru 2 may again be called into battle with the Ady Gil’s determined antiwhaling owner, the U.S.-based Sea Shepherd Conservation Society.
And how was this new security to be paid for? From money tagged for reconstruction following the triple national disasters in March.
Fisheries Agency officials admitted that roughly ¥2.28 billion would be used from a post-disaster reconstruction fund, earmarked as part of about ¥500 billion in “fisheries-related spending” green-lighted by parliament last month.
“Safer hunts” would ultimately help whaling towns along the coast to recover from the earthquake and tsunami, said spokesman Tatsuya Nakaoku.
Conservationists condemned the plan. “Not only is the whaling industry unable to survive without large increases in government handouts, now it’s siphoning money away from the victims of the March 11 triple disaster — at a time when they need it most,” said Junichi Sato, executive director of Greenpeace Japan. “This is a new low for the shameful whaling industry and the callous politicians who support it.”
That was very bad PR for an industry that already gets its fair share, but there was worse.
Fueled by interviews with Sea Shepherd’s combative leader, Paul Watson, the story was misreported around the world to imply that foreign donations, not Japanese taxes, were being siphoned off to protect the cull. In an interview with Sky TV Australia, Watson called it “really disgraceful” that the money had come from “people all over the world” who’d never dreamed how it would be used.
That claim is refuted by Sea Shepherd rival Greenpeace, which has said Watson is not doing conservationists any favors by misrepresenting the truth. “It’s about the credibility of the whole antiwhaling movement,” said Sato at Greenpeace Japan.
The Fisheries Agency defended the use of the disaster money, which comes on top of an estimated $10 million in annual government subsides to the industry. “We have to protect our fleet.”
Hideki Moronuki, formerly the Agency’s whaling spokesman, was more blunt. “Paul Watson is making irresponsible propaganda based on nothing but his wishes to raise money, money and money. This is an insult to not only Japanese peoples but also those who extended to the people suffering from the disaster the kindest assistance.”
Whatever the funding facts, there seems little prospect of peace and love breaking out in the Southern Ocean. Japan’s tooled-up fleet will almost certainly clash again with an invigorated Sea Shepherd, which claimed a major victory earlier this year when the whalers cut short their hunt after weeks of harassment. Their ships reportedly returned to port with about a fifth of the planned catch. Japan also blamed its reduced haul of 507 animals during its 2009-10 Antarctic hunt on the harrying of its fleet.
This year, the fleet reportedly intends to cull around 930 minke whales and possibly a handful of fin whales and even humpbacks — though that would surely spark fierce protest around the world.
Watson has drawn a line in the sand, warning that the faceoff “could escalate into some serious confrontations.”
“Last year, we chased them all the way to South America and that’s when they decided to go home early. We’ve already defeated them economically. Now we just have to defeat them politically. I will guarantee you one thing: They’re not going to get that quota. We’re going to prevent them from getting that quota.”
David McNeill is Japan correspondent for the London-based national newspaper The Independent. Watch out for more “In Small Print” columns to come.