Whale Wars resumes: Sea Shepherd and Japanese Fleets Head Back to the Southern Ocean

Whaling season in the Southern Ocean is off and gunning, with both Japanese and Sea Shepherd ships alike steaming for the fertile hunting grounds off Antarctica

Last season was largely regarded a “win” for the conservation group (even though it sacrificed its $2 million chase boat, the “Ady Gil,” in a collision with a whaling ship) since the whalers missed their goals by a wide margin.

The Japanese fleet of seven ships had hoped to take home 850 minke whale — in the name of science and research in order to avoid the international moratorium against whaling that’s been on the books since 1986 — but successfully hunted only 506. They’d also hoped for 10 fin whales, but killed just one.

This year, perhaps due to the increased visibility the Shepherd’s campaign has attracted thanks to Animal Planet’s “Whale Wars” series (the upcoming season will be the fourth it has documented), the Japanese fleet left port several weeks later than usual for its annual five-month hunt.

The size of its fleet was reduced as well. Last year it included a factory ship, three harpoon ships, a supply ship and two patrol vessels; this year’s fleet has been cut by at least three ships. At the same time the Shepherd’s have beefed up their harassment team by replacing the sunken “Ady Gil” with a 115-foot monohull named “Gojira,” Japanese for Godzilla, which combines the words for “gorilla” and “whale.”

The state of Washington-based group’s mainstays the “Bob Barker” and “Steve Irwin,” as well as a faster helicopter, all of which departed Hobart, Tasmania last week, will join the speedboat, which previously held a record for blasting around the world in just 74 days.(The off-season was hardly quiet for the Shepherd’s, particularly the “Ady Gil’s” skipper Pete Bethune who spent four months in a Japanese jail and was given a two-year suspended jail term by a Japanese court for boarding one of the whaling ships. Despite having spent an estimated $1 million defending Bethune, after the trial the group’s charismatic commodore Paul Watson engaged in a public spat with the just-freed Kiwi over who exactly and what had caused the sinking of the “Ady Gil.” Apparently peace has been made though, and Bethune has launched his own group intent on protecting pilot whales in the Faroe Islands.)

Pro-whaling countries are not backing down from a fight. In a two-day meeting last week in Shimonoseki, Japan, representatives from 24 countries and regions convened to “map out their joint campaign” for resuming whaling.

Greenpeace campaigners predicted from Tokyo that this was saber rattling and that the reduced Japanese fleet and late departure means the 2010-2011 hunt will produce less than half of last year’s hoped-for-quota.

“As of August 2010, there were over 5,700 tons of whale meat in frozen storage, over a year’s supply,” said Greenpeace’s Wakao Hanaoka. “This wasteful taxpayer-backed program produces product no one in Japan wants.” He cited surveys that suggested even a majority of Japanese are against whaling in the distant high seas.

flickr image via gsz