Whale war heats up in chilly Antarctic waters

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Charges of eco-terrorism fly after Japanese crew seizes two activists

Charges of eco-terrorism fly after Japanese crew seizes two activists

A Japanese whaling ship detained and then released two anti-whaling activists who, along with shipmates, had been harassing the whalers and disrupting their annual December-to-March hunt for minke whales in Antarctic waters.

The crew of the Japanese harpoon ship Yushin Maru No. 2 held Australian Benjamin Potts and Briton Giles Lane for three days before releasing them Jan. 18 to the Australian customs vessel Ocean Viking. Australian authorities had been monitoring the Japanese whalers, who were hunting south of the Kerguelen Islands in waters Australia claims as part of its Antarctic economic zone.

The two were “roughed up” and tied first to a deck railing, then to the radar mast before being escorted to a cabin, where a Yushin Maru crewman kept his eye on them from outside the door, says Paul Watson, captain of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society ship Steve Irwin. Giles and Lane are part of Watson’s crew.

The two were treated well after that, Watson says, but he still characterizes the incident as “hostage-taking.” “[The whalers] said last year that if they got hold of any of our men, they would hold them and charge them with eco-terrorism,” says Watson, who spoke to Soundings over satellite phone from his ship.

The Institute for Cetacean Research, the Japanese group that organizes the hunts, denies that the whaling crew held the men hostage. In a statement on its Web site (www.icrwhale.org ), the institute says the two were taken into custody after they illegally boarded the ship. ICR claims Watson never responded to an offer to release the men directly to Sea Shepherd on condition the Steve Irwin and its helicopter stay 10 miles away, and its crew refrain from any hi-jinks during the transfer of the men to one of Watson’s Zodiacs. ICR says the release of the intruders does not prevent it from filing charges against them later.

Watson says Potts and Lane slipped aboard Yushin Maru during an encounter with one of Sea Shepherd’s Zodiacs. He says the activists aboard the Zodiac had tossed a stink bomb onto the ship’s deck and tried to foul its prop with lines. The two boarders weren’t directly involved in those antics but were carrying a message to the whaler’s captain, Watson says. The message asked the Japanese captain to stop the hunt because it is illegal in the Australian Antarctic Territorial Economic Exclusion Zone, which stretches 200 miles off Antarctica — roughly the Ross Sea to Enderbyland.

Watson says another reason for putting the men aboard the Yushin Maru was to spark an international incident and draw attention to the hunt and the diplomatic stalemate that allows it to go on. The Japanese say whale-hunting is part of their cultural heritage. They characterize the annual hunt as scientific research because they also survey the whale population. ICR says its surveys are proving its claims that minke whales are abundant — 760,000 of them.

Meanwhile, most of the international community sees the hunt as a violation of the 1986 international whaling moratorium, but the moratorium has no teeth, no enforcement provisions. Australian law prohibits whale hunting in its Antarctic economic zone, but an Australian court declined to enforce the law against Japanese whalers in 2005 because Japan doesn’t recognize Australia’s territorial claims in Antarctica. The Australian government this year sent the Ocean Viking out to photograph the Japanese fleet — three harpoon boats, two spotter boats, a supply ship and a factory ship — so it can press an international legal case against the whalers.

Watson believes the international community and Australia, in particular, are sitting on their hands while the hunt goes on year after year, so he shadows the fleet and launches his Zodiacs to disrupt the hunt whenever he can. “The important thing is that for 12 days they’ve not caught any whales,” says Watson. “And we’ve made international headlines. We’ve put the focus on Japan. They’re poachers. It’s no different than poaching lions in Africa or tigers in India.”

Watson had to motor five hours away from Yushin Maru to rendezvous with Ocean Viking and retrieve his two crewmembers, throwing him off the whalers’ scent. As he set out to find them again, a 250-foot Japanese drag trawler, the Fukuyoshi Maru No. 68, shadowed him, as it had for three days, likely radioing his location to the whalers. Watson says the dragger appeared tricked out with electronic surveillance gear, and he suspected it might harbor backup in the event of an escalation in the harassment.

“There have been reports of armed Japanese police or military being placed on a ship and sent down to the Southern Ocean,” he says.

The cat-and-mouse games continue.