Jan 24th 2008 | SYDNEY
From The Economist print edition
A row between Australia and Japan
THE Southern Ocean is usually one of the world’s loneliest shipping lanes.This month it has turned into an unseemly battleground over a bid byAustralia’s government and various environmental groups to stop Japan huntingand slaughtering whales. Japan aims to kill more than 900 minke and 50 finwhales from a region bordering Antarctica by mid-April. It claims the hunt isfor scientific research; its critics say this is a brazen front for acommercial whale-meat harvest. As images of the protesters’ antics inflameanti-Japanese feeling in Australia, the clash is also threatening the stabilityof one of Australia’s strongest regional ties.
On January 22nd Greenpeace, an environmental-lobbying group, wedged asmall inflatable craft between the Nisshin Maru, the Japanese fleet’sfactory ship, and its refuelling vessel. It managed to delay, but not stop, theoperation. This was a minor episode compared with a manoeuvre a week earlier bythe Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, an anti-whaling body. Two protestersboarded one of the Japanese whaling vessels to deliver a letter demanding thatthe harpooning stop and, say the Japanese, splashed acid about.
They were detained on the Japanese ship, grabbing headlines worldwide,until an Australian patrol boat returned them to their own ship three dayslater. More protests seem likely. Paul Watson, captain of the Sea Shepherd shiptracking the whalers, says he is prepared to keep up the chase for weeks. Hepainted Greenpeace as timid for its failure to prevent refuelling: “Of courseit’s dangerous. Stopping the whaling fleet is not a game.”
Japanese fleets have been hunting whales in the Southern Ocean for severalyears. None has had to deal with confrontations like those seen this season.Kevin Rudd, Australia’s new prime minister, called for an end to the whaling.An Australian aircraft is keeping an eye on the operation. At least some of thewhaling is happening in waters off a section of Antarctica over which Australiaclaims sovereignty. Eight years ago Australia declared a whale sanctuary in itsAntarctic waters.
Humane Society International, another environmental group, won a rulingfrom the Federal Court in Australia on January 15th that whaling in thesanctuary was illegal and should stop. The court reported Japanese figures showingJapan had killed more than 3,300 minke whales and 13 fin whales in Antarcticwaters (not confined to Australia’s zone) since 2000.
Mr Rudd’s government has reacted cautiously to the ruling. Only France,New Zealand, Norway and Britain recognise Australia’ s Antarctic claim. For itspart, Japan regards the Australian sanctuary as international waters.Commercial whaling was banned worldwide 22 years ago. But killing for“scientific” research is still allowed under a 1946 convention. Japan’s criticsquestion whether research requires so many whales to be killed.
Japanese officials also accuse Australia of hypocrisy: taking the highground over whales while it kills thousands of kangaroos in controlled culls.Minoru Morimoto, Japan’s commissioner to the International Whaling Commission,says: “There are enough whales for those who want to watch them and those whowant to eat them.” Derek Luxford, a Sydney shipping lawyer, reckons Australiashould resolve the impasse by testing its anti-whaling law before theInternational Tribunal for the Law of the Sea. The alternative, he says, is toallow “vigilante” groups like Sea Shepherd to enforce its law.
He may be right. The dispute is souring the air as Australia embarks ontalks with Japan about a free-trade agreement. And it complicates the Ruddgovernment’s bid to balance Japan against China’s growing importance for Australia. Mr Rudd, a Mandarin-speaking China expert, opposed a security pactthat Australia’s former government signed with Japan last year. Japan will belooking for signs that Australia’s concern for the future of the whale is notpart of some wider agenda.