These charges all stem from confrontations with the Japanese whaling fleet in the waters of Antarctica, both before and after the security ship Shonan Maru II rammed and sunk the Ady Gil. Peter Bethune was detained by the security ship’s crew after he boarded the vessel in a quixotic attempt to perform a citizen’s arrest on the ship captain, hoping to charge him with attempted murder in connection with the earlier ramming.
The Sea Shepherd society was once again in the process of trying to disrupt the annual Japanese whale hunt. Japan is one of only three nations in the world to continue an active commercial whale hunt in spite of a world-wide ban on whale hunting. The other two nations are Iceland and Norway, both of whom are at least honest enough to admit that they are hunting whales for food.
At the same time, indigenous groups in Canada, the United States, Greenland, the Faroe Islands, and Indonesia continue to take small numbers of whales in subsistence hunts. In Canada, this is about 1 whale every two years, while the US take about 50 a year. These are bowhead whales, which though categorized as “endangered”, are on the comeback. Canada’s participation in bowhead hunting has caused some controversy, as Canada is not a member of the IWC.
Japan defends whaling as a cultural practice, but in the case of the scientific whaling fleet, the meat is being sold commercially, while for the North American First Nations people, it is largely being used to feed local communities.
The Japanese government maintains that its hunt is merely for scientific purposes, which is permitted under the terms of the whaling ban. What sort of research requires them to kill the whales, butcher them on the spot, and then later sell them for a hefty profit in Tokyo fish markets is unknown. According to the Japanese, the primary goal of the research program is to establish the viability of Antarctic whale populations for sustained commercial whaling. Selling the meat after the fact is simply to help support the costs of the research.
In 1982 the International Whaling Commission established a moratorium on all whaling activity. All signatory nations agreed to the moratorium save Norway, who registered an official objection and was thus exempt from its provisions. Iceland later withdrew, and resumed commercial whaling in 2006. Between them, Iceland and Norway take approximately 500 whales a year, most of them minke, a non-threatened species. The most recent Japanese whaling expedition to the Antarctic zone garnered them 506 minke whale and one finback whale. This was less than half what the whaling fleet had planned to take, largely due to the efforts of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society.
Which brings us back to New Zealander Peter Bethune. Australia and New Zealand have long protested Japanese whaling efforts in the South Pacific and Antarctic regions. Greenpeace and Sea Shepherd have echoed the complaints that research does not require the killing of whales. In the 12 years that the whaling fleet has been making the expedition to the southern ocean, for the nearly 10,000 whales killed, less than 55 peer-reviewed papers have been produced. And 5,000 tons of whale meat are in storage in Japan as part of their national food reserve.
Peter Bethune is being tried for assault, possession of a weapon, trespass, damage to property, and obstructing commercial activity. He has pled guilty to all but the assault charge, and even then he maintains that his actions were justifiable. He faces up to 15 years in a Japanese prison if convicted on all five charges.