Where on Earth are the whalers?
That question is vexing activists from the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, who have failed to locate the Japanese whaling fleet during this season’s hunt for minke whales in the Southern Ocean.
Every year over the past decade, Sea Shepherd vessels out of Australia have shadowed the Japanese fleet to monitor the annual hunt and interfere with the killing of whales. But not this year. The whalers have managed to evade Sea Shepherd by expanding their hunting grounds.
“They have dramatically expanded their hunting area threefold, moving eastward towards Chile and westwards towards South Africa,” said Sea Shepherd founder Paul Watson. “They could be anywhere.”
Watson said the Japanese deliberately expanded the hunt to elude Sea Shepherd.
“It's like trying to find a handful of trucks in an area twice the size of the United States,” Jeff Hansen, managing director of Sea Shepherd Australia, wrote in an email.
Japanese ships are complicating matters by taking far fewer whales this season, with a reduced quota of 333, down from the 1,035 the government authorized in the past.
“They can take the quota in far less time, which gives us much less time to search for them,” Watson said.
Even worse for Sea Shepherd, only one of its vessels, the Steve Irwin, is in the Southern Ocean. The group’s two other ships that can navigate the Southern Ocean are in the Faroe Islands trying to stop the pilot whale hunt in the North Atlantic archipelago.
The international community has excoriated Japan for authorizing the whaling, which the country claims is conducted for “scientific research.”
In March 2014, the International Court of Justice ruled that the whaling program was not scientific and violated a 1986 commercial whaling moratorium.
Japan agreed to conduct only nonlethal research in the 2014–15 season. But last November, it submitted a new proposal to the International Whaling Commission to harpoon 333 minke whales annually for 12 years.
Much of the opposition has been spearheaded by New Zealand and Australia. Sea Shepherd has asked the two countries for assistance in locating the Japanese fleet this year but has received no response.
“The Australian military knows where these whaling vessels are,” Watson said. “Everyone is saying that Australia needs to send a ship [to monitor the hunt]. We said we can do it. Just give us the coordinates.”
Sea Shepherd representatives contend that government officials in the Australian capital, Canberra, failed to deliver on a 2013 campaign promise to dispatch a customs vessel to the Southern Ocean to “provide a clear signal that the Australian people don’t support whaling.”
“It’s very frustrating,” Hansen said. “We’ve got blood in the water and a blind eye in Canberra. It’s completely unacceptable.”
A spokesperson for the Australian embassy in Washington said she could not immediately obtain comment from Canberra but provided a link to a new interview with Foreign Minister Julie Bishop conducted by the Japanese broadcaster NHK.
“We support the global ban on commercial whaling,” Bishop said. “This is an area of disagreement, but we have a much broader relationship and partnership [with Japan] that we focus upon while disagreeing on the issue of scientific whaling.”
Whatever Australia does, Sea Shepherd’s anti-whaling campaign will continue, Hansen said.
“Sea Shepherd will always do the best we can with the limited recourses we have,” he said. “In our 10 Antarctic whale-defense campaigns, we have saved the lives of over 5,000 whales, and due to our actions and pressure, we saw the International Court of Justice action and a reduced quota, thereby saving over 700 whales every year.”
Watson said the group will have more success next season.
Sea Shepherd is building a vessel that will be launched in September, Watson noted. “We needed a fast, long-range patrol boat. This one will have four engines, can go 30 knots, and can travel anywhere in the world,” he said. “For the first time, we’ll have a vessel that can go faster than any Japanese harpoon vessel.”
For this season, however, Watson conceded that the anti-whaling campaign has come up short.
“I think we’ve run out of time to find them,” Watson said. “Based on their past record, they would have gotten about 333 whales by around now. We always knew we were at a disadvantage until we get our new vessel.”