Article 9 of the Japanese Constitution needs a 21st century updating. While Tokyo isn’t at war according to World War II standards, Japan does find itself ensnared in a fourth-generation war. Far from home, its “researchers” will don their armor and man their stations in preparation for battle with Sea Shepherd, the world’s preeminent whaling insurgency.
Surely Japan feels trapped in an endless quagmire, having battled the group for six years to no avail. Although initially overcoming the numerically weaker Sea Shepherd, last year the state-sponsored Institute of Cetacean Research (ICR) suffered a devastating blow after a mobilized Sea Shepherd halved its 1,000 whale quota. In typical 4G fashion, Sea Shepherd’s information network acts as though the ICR now stands on its last leg. Declaring this upcoming season as the end game, Sea Shepherd has dubbed its largest operation to date No Compromise.
A pure strain of fourth-generation warfare: state sponsored, civil-military proxies battling privately sponsored, government-supported, eco-insurgents in international waters. Doubtful that Milo Rowell and Courtney Whitney saw that coming.
Also certain is Japan’s need to wake up from poor strategy in the Southern Ocean. Its media reach doesn’t come near Animal Planet’s Whale Wars, while the conflict’s economic scale can quickly render whaling obsolete. By halving the IRC’s quota, Sea Shepherd reduced its profit by tens of millions. The group calculates that the IRC "needs to kill at least 765 whales to break even.” Avoiding Sea Shepherd’s fleet entails dispersing their own, limiting efficiency, or else launching helicopters or multiple fleets as a diversionary measure, increasing costs and further reducing whaling’s economic viability.
Conversely, a smaller fleet would produce an even smaller catch, and Sea Shepherd already believes that economic losses sustained from the 2010 campaign have depleted the IRC’s fleet. Last season was considered a tipping point no sooner than it ended, leaving a hyped-up Sea Shepherd to sniff blood throughout the summer. Now the IRC’s late departure from port is encouraging Sea Shepherd to believe this season could be the final showdown.
Said the groups leader, Paul Watson, from Bluff, New Zealand: "We're really just killing time waiting for the Japanese fleet to come down – they left a week late.”
“What this means for Sea Shepherd,” read a recent press release from the group, “is that for the first time in history, Sea Shepherd’s fleet will be in the Southern Ocean Whale Sanctuary before the Japanese whaling fleet arrives. We will be waiting for them this year, and the sooner we find them, the sooner we can shut them down.”
The Japanese fleet's mother ship, Nisshin Maru, left port on December 2nd, two weeks later than usual. It’s also believed that the IRC’s fleet, historically consisting of a factory ship, three harpoon ships, a supply ship, and two patrol vessels has been cut by three ships, including the supply ship Hiyo Maru No.2. Others speculate that the Nisshin Maru could be trying to keep a lower profile, but if so it hasn’t worked. Greenpeace holds yet another explanation: declining demand for whale meat.
Thilo Maack, a marine biologist with the group, claims the whalers “are up to their necks in it. First, they lose their tanker and refrigerator ship, then their sightings ship. Now they have to satisfy themselves with a halved quota and a drastically shorter hunting season.”
The final scenario remains unchanged though: whaling is losing its economic practicality.
A dark, bleak situation is staring down the IRC’s bow, one that could push them to drastic and potentially dangerous risks. Just as Sea Shepherd would lose its moral high-ground for injuring or killing a whaler, Japan’s credibility would hit rock-bottom in the event of Sea Shepherd casualties. With the environment already at the breaking point and IRC vessels returning with Coast Guard agents for the first time since 2007, New Zealand Foreign Minister Murray McCully recently forewarned what everyone is thinking.
"Here you have a pretty explosive cocktail,” he said. “You've got Japanese whalers going down there feeling somewhat angry about the developments last year... you've got protesters going down there saying they're going to take a very robust approach. Anyone who looks at what happened last year has got to be fearful there will be a loss of human life under those circumstances.”
Neither side will sail into battle with the intention of taking life, but they’re also unwilling to back down and mishaps are a common occurrence in warfare. Despite New Zealand’s political and moral support, Watson remains unsatisfied with the speed of political bureaucracy and lashed out at McCully for raising tensions. "I think it's volatile because he says it's volatile,” said Watson in New Zealand, when the truth is that both sides are boiling tensions.
Scott West, Sea Shepherd's director for investigations, tries to assure, "We choose our tactics and our methods in a way to be effective, but without causing injury. We're more than happy to destroy equipment but we won't cause harm."
Not only does Sea Shepherd lack total control of its tactics - its stink-bomb projectiles could strike a whaler in the head - non-lethal tactics are more than enough to agitate the IRC fleet. Its three-ship armada, including the “Gojira” (Godzillla) speed boat, is meant to intimidate and, to a degree, cause fear in the IRC. And an enormous reservoir of pressure accumulated from last season, which could lead to unpredictable effects. The Japanese government only had two options: order the IRC to refrain from sinking vessels or approve the use of necessary force. Though escalating the provocation of last year seems absurd, Sea Shepherd has Japan on the ropes and those cornered often lash out.
"The Gojira will allow us to find the fleet early on in the season and cut down their kill quotas right off the bat," said Locky MacLean, captain of the Gojira. "We reckon we can be down there before they get there and if we can find them, you know, before they commence their whaling operations they may not even get a chance to start whaling this season."
So what happens if Sea Shepherd does reach the whaling grounds before the IRC fleet and completely block their operations? What if the IRC can’t get away, much like Sea Shepherd’s prior inability to escape IRC patrol ships? Unless it quits and goes home, the IRC has no resort except force.
Nothing, though, is worse than taking foolish risks to prolong a losing strategy. The question multiplies as whale demand falls: why continue hunting an illegal animal for meat that many Japanese don’t even like? Why is whaling worth Sea Shepherd’s hassle? Japan’s history of whaling doesn’t completely answer the question. A powerful assortment of people control the whaling industry - Sea Shepherd alleges the Yakuza - clouding its decision making. But the general consensus among Japanese seems to be that no one should tell them what to eat or what not to eat.
And pride is difficult to swallow.
Yet Japan must realize the futility of its strategy. Though Sea Shepherd has plenty of detractors, few insurgencies possess majority support. Sea Shepherd enjoys a strong base and is now going for the majority - and success breeds success. While the IRC’s economics have stopped adding up, Sea Shepherd’s coffers are being filled by more than trendy celebrities. And Whale Wars waits to capture every move.
The IRC could be knocked out in 2011, further humiliating it and isolating its position while emboldening Sea Shepherd.
Few options present themselves before the Japanese government. Considering its strategic and tactical position, Tokyo must accept a political resolution to the conflict before it causes a loss of life, which would permanently impair its legal case in the region. Too little is gained at too great a risk. Japan must also save face while it still can, since image is key to the conflict’s equation.
While Australia readies its legal bid to stop whaling at the International Court of Justice, New Zealand will proceed with bi-lateral talks to convince Japan of ending its whaling campaign “at the earliest possible time." Although Tokyo is locked in another battle with the International Whaling Commission, it must probe these negotiations with the utmost seriousness as they offer an escape from being singled out on the international stage. Watson isn’t happy with New Zealand’s strategy as he considers the IRC at complete fault for the preceding season's events. McCully accused both parties of being at fault and his “message was directed at both parties."
Watson, who won’t accept any blame, retorted, "We jokingly refer to him as the Foreign Minister for Japan."
Watson believes that Japan should be given no mercy, all the more reason for Japan to reach a political settlement with regional powers. It would be a mistake to let this war drag on - an anchor stuck to the sea floor. New Zealand (or a diplomatic resolution in general) provides a tie if the IRC doesn’t wish to be defeated by Sea Shepherd.
And we’re assuming that nothing could be worse for Tokyo.