By Ben Courtrice on GreenLeft.org.au.
When the Sea Shepherd vessel Ady Gil sank on January 8 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 Sea Shepherd protesters of “behaving in a manner that has put life at risk” — after they were nearly killed in the collision! Japanese representatives went further, insinuating that the Ady Gil left a fuel spill, although Sea Shepherd said this may have been staged by the whalers.
Australia’s environment minister, Peter Garrett, stated in a letter to Sea Shepherd that his government’s “opposition to commercial and so-called ‘scientific’ whaling” is best expressed by diplomatic means.
Some on the left attack Sea Shepherd for alleged racism and nationalism. One socialist blog author, John Passant, said: “There is nothing about whales that means humanity shouldn’t eat them” before going on to explain that Sea Shepherd had utilised racist, colonialist arguments against indigenous subsistence whaling, such as that practised by the Makah people in northern United States.
The Australian government’s opposition to whaling, Passant said, supported its “imperialist claims to the Australian Antarctic Territory”, claims recognised only by the other four countries with similar claims.
Passant asserted that “the Antarctic minke whale is not under threat of extinction”, citing a 1989 figure for the minke population. According to Greenpeace, however, the International Whaling Commission’s 1990 estimate of the Antarctic minke population as 760,000 “was withdrawn by the IWC in 2000 because recent surveys found far fewer minkes … New estimates are half the old in every area that has been resurveyed.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 … so far have not been able to agree a new estimate.”
Passant 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 — which at least keeps the issue on people’s minds — would be to try to mobilise its supporters for more participatory protests such as those outside the Japanese embassy.
Evidence of racism from Sea Shepherd has been scant since its 1999 campaign against Makah whaling. That campaign was undertaken in alliance with right-wing, anti-indigenous Republican senator Jack Metcalf.
While Sea Shepherd deserves condemnation for its attack on an endangered culture like the Makah, who do not engage in industrial whale slaughter, its target today is the Japanese whaling fleet.
Sea Shepherd’s current campaign name, “Operation Waltzing Matilda”, may be an appeal to nationalism (certainly, it’s embarrassingly lame), but there is no evidence of anti-Japanese racism in it.
It is not mandatory to embrace all of Sea Shepherd’s past actions or statements in order to support this current campaign against whaling.
The whole industrial fishing industry is unsustainable. Drift-netting, bottom trawling and overfishing are destroying the world's fish “stocks”. The fact that we call them "stocks" underlies the problem: fish are not an inert resource, but part of an ecosystem.
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 feeds, not the world, but a luxury niche market of wealthy consumers.
Sea Shepherd states its reason for its actions 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 fishing is needed, Australia is not even living up to its promise to halt Japan’s whaling.
An example of what action could be taken is the Venezuelan government’s banning last March of industrial trawl-fishing within Venezuela’s territorial waters. That law has the double effect of empowering small-scale and subsistence fishing activities while destroying the big-business fishing industry.
If only Garrett and the ALP government had as much spine.