When the Sea Shepherd vessel Ady Gil sank following a collision with a ship in the Japanese whaling fleet, snap protests were called outside Japanese embassy offices in Australia. For some this has become a political football to kick their own goals, but the cause of marine conservation deserves better.
New Zealand foreign minister Murray McCully accused the protesters of “behaving in a manner that has put life at risk” - after they themselves were nearly killed in the collision! Japanese representatives have gone further to insinuate the Ady Gil left a fuel spill, although Sea Shepherd suggest this may have been staged by the whalers. Australia’s environment minister Peter Garrett has emphasised in a letter to Sea Shepherd that his government’s “opposition to commercial and so-called “scientific” whaling” is best expressed by diplomatic means.
Left criticFrom the left, some attack Sea Shepherd for alleged racism and nationalism. One socialist, blog author John Passant, provocatively begins his article with the statement “There is nothing about whales that means humanity shouldn’t eat them.” He goes on to explain that Sea Shepherd have utilised racist, colonialist arguments against indigenous subsistence whaling such as that practiced by the Makah people of northern USA.
The Australian government’s opposition to whaling, he says, supports its “imperialist claims to the Australian Antarctic Territory,” claims only recognised by the other four countries with similar claims.
Passant asserts that “the Antarctic minke whale is not under threat of extinction” and cites a 1989 figure for minke whale population. According to Greenpeace, the International Whaling Commission’s 1990 estimate of the Antarctic minke population as 760,000 “was withdrawn by the IWC in 2000 because recent surveys found far fewer minkes … new estimates are half the old in every area that has been resurveyed. The IWC’s scientists do not understand the reasons for this and so far have not been able to agree a new estimate.”
HeroicsPassant attacks Sea Shepherd for elitism. “Their activity does not extend to agitating among Japanese or Australian workers as workers, in particular those in the ports and on the boats. They have contempt for workers… Their approach involves substituting themselves for the mass of people.”
The history of direct action activism is full of debates about elitism. The dichotomy of small bands of heroes doing the direct action, funded by passive supporters’ direct-debit activism, does not necessarily build a bigger movement, and can reinforce passivity.
But a better solution than attacking Sea Shepherd – who at least keep the issue on people’s minds – would be to try and mobilise their supporters for more participatory protests (such as at the Japanese embassy).
Racist or nationalist?Evidence for racism from Sea Shepherd is scant since their campaign against the Makah whaling in 1999. This was undertaken in alliance with a right-wing anti-indigenous Republican Senator, Jack Metcalf. Sea Shepherd deserve condemnation for their attack on an endangered culture like the Makah, who do not engage in industrial whale slaughter like the Japanese fleet. But the Japanese fleet are what they are protesting against right now.
Sea Shepherd’s current campaign is called “Operation Waltzing Matilda” which may constitute nationalism (certainly it’s embarrassingly twee). But there is no evidence of anti-Japanese racism in it. There are a myriad of ignorant and racist supporters on the internet if one looks for comments on discussion forums, but not from Sea Shepherd. It is not mandatory to embrace all their past actions or statements in order to give some support to this campaign against whaling.
Marine conservationThe whole industrial fish harvesting industry is unsustainable. Driftnetting, bottom trawling, and overfishing is destroying the world's "fish stocks". The fact that we call them "stocks" underlies the problem: they are not some inert resource, or a commodified flock in a pen. They are part of an ecosystem. Industrial fishing is causing one of the world's worst ecological/food crises.
Whaling as practiced by the Japanese fleet ought to be considered in the industrial fishing category, and leftists should not be afraid to condemn it. It is not feeding the world, it is feeding a luxury niche market for a small elite of consumers.
Sea Shepherd’s own reason for their actions is given clearly: “Japanese whalers are operating illegally by targeting endangered and protected whales in an established international whale sanctuary in violation of a global moratorium on commercial whaling, in violation of the Antarctic Treaty and in contempt of an Australian Federal Court order.”
While a broad movement against all industrial fish harvesting is needed, Australia is not even living up to its promises to halt Japan’s whaling. For an example of what action could be taken, the Venezuelan government in March 2009 banned industrial trawl-fishing within Venezuela’s territorial waters. The law has the double effect of empowering small scale and subsistence fishing activities, while destroying the big business fishing industry. If only Garrett had as much spine.