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Sea Shepherd loses an information battle with the Japanese fishing industry

This article is a translation of the original article “L’ONG Sea Shepherd perd une bataille de l’information contre l’industrie de la pêche japonaise“, published on December 5, 2017.

Founded in 1977 by the Canadian Paul Watson, the NGO Sea Shepherd Conservation Society (SSCS) has been opposing various Japanese cetacean fishing stakeholders since 2003, first and foremost the Institute of Cetacean Research (ICR), a Japanese non-profit organization responsible for coordinating whaling campaigns for official scientific research purposes, Kyodo Senpaku Kaisha Ltd., which coordinates the marketing of food products from the whales caught, as well as the dolphin-fishing communities in the port of Taiji in western Japan.

Issues of influence and power

The stakes for the SSCS are of an ideological, legal and reputational nature: ideological in order to promote its biocentric vision of the interactions between man and his natural environment (as opposed to an anthropocentric vision, which is still very widespread in most industrial societies), legal by acting as a “vigilante” to ensure that the moratorium on whaling decreed in 1986 by the International Whaling Commission (IWC) is respected on the seas by methods that are themselves outside the strictly legal framework (cf. infra), and finally, of a reputational nature in order to impose itself as an interlocutor and an essential warning system in the fight against illegal and, more risky, “immoral” fishing.

The stakes for the Japanese cetacean fishing industry are cultural, economic and reputational. Cultural, as cetacean fishing is rooted in the popular culture and culinary habits of certain coastal regions, thus constituting for certain Japanese pressure groups a bastion of resistance to the cultural uniformity felt as a result of globalization. Economic, due to the quantity and the degraded price levels of whale meat (auctions regularly ending up at levels 50% lower than the reserve price, due to a collapse in demand) on the one hand, and the amount of public subsidies on the other hand. Finally, the reputation of whaling among international public opinion has been widely tarnished.

It is interesting to note that, while the Japanese political class seems to agree on a pro-whaling consensus that crosses the entire political spectrum (from the Liberal Democratic Party to the Japanese Communist Party), Japanese public opinion remains much more divided and in any case more attentive to the form taken by the confrontation than to the substance itself (as is often the case in a pragmatic country like Japan).

Information asymmetry

The confrontation between the protagonists in this war of attrition is marked by a very clear asymmetry in information attack strategies. While the strategy of the SSCS is centered on informal attacks with the media as a quasi-exclusive relay of influence, that of the ICR and other actors in the whaling industry voluntarily places itself on the purely institutional and legal terrain, with rare relays of public opinion.

In the case of the SSCS, ad hoc campaigns of violent harassment on the high seas and in Japanese ports are announced in advance and carried out in order to fuel a strategy of attack by the media, which is widely relayed by numerous supporters in the cable television sector as well as in Hollywood (many of whom are leading actors among the members of the SSCS Supervisory Committee). This concentration on the unique angle of the media provides the NGO with a decisive lever of power to compensate for its size and its derisory financial means compared to those of the institutional players it faces. A reality TV series entitled “Whale Wars” was thus broadcast on the cable channel Animal Planet (owned by the Discovery Channel group) from 2008 to 2015, recounting season after season the harassment campaigns conducted by the various boats at the disposal of the SSCS against Japanese whalers in the waters of the Antarctic Ocean. In addition, the SSCS commissioned the production of the film “The Cove“, which aired in 2009, denouncing the fishing and ritual capture of dolphins in the Taiji Harbour Cove in western Japan. The film won the US Audience Award at the 25th Sundance Film Festival, an influential independent film festival.

For their part, the Japanese actors concentrated their efforts on a counterattack at the strictly institutional level by strengthening their ties with the Japanese government (thus increasing public subsidies in the framework of the JARPA and JARPN research programs), complying with the initial injunctions of the IWC to stop certain fishing campaigns and reduce the number of catches, and initiating legal proceedings in various competent international jurisdictions to obtain the condemnation of acts of “quasi-piracy” by SSCS vessels. The low intensity of the relays of influence with public opinion, through the employment of the New Zealand firm Omeka Communications headed by Maori Glenn A. Inwood, in comparison with that of the SSCS attacks, illustrates the bypass strategy employed by a Japanese camp preferring to avoid direct confrontation.

Mistakes made by the NGO

The confrontation between the SSCS and the Japanese actors seems to have turned to the advantage of the latter, due to the nature of the methods employed by the SSCS. The confrontational methods of the NGO seem indeed to have constituted a major weak point of its strategy, attracting the criticism of other NGOs militating for the respect of the moratorium of the IWC (in the forefront of which is Greenpeace), the wrath of various Western governments, yet critical of cetacean fishing (trials lost and in progress in the United States), in Australia and New Zealand) and alienating a part of the Japanese general public that was relatively unattached to the cultural component of cetacean fishing and initially not very sensitive to the interests of the whaling industry.

On the other hand, the SSCS has clearly lost the “arms race” imposed by Japanese whalers now equipped with military detection equipment and increasingly escorted by Japanese Navy vessels. Indeed, the NGO is struggling to sustain a financial pace that is out of reach, even though Australia persists in refusing it the status of a recognized organization of public interest, which would allow it to be granted tax exemptions on donations received and thus broaden its donor base.

Thus, on August 28, the SSCS announced the abandonment of harassment campaigns against Japanese whalers in the Antarctic Ocean and a redeployment to other “hot spots” such as the African coasts, Iceland or the Faroe Islands. In addition, the NGO seems to be shifting its focus from institutional actors of upstream fisheries (e.g. ICR) to consumers of fisheries products further downstream (e.g. food products, visitors to aquariums and dolphinariums located in countries that are not members of the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums), with the obvious objective of focusing on “name and shame” campaigns.

Already in 2005, the SSCS had contributed to the collapse of the company Nissui (Nippon Suisan Kaisha Ltd), a major player in the Japanese seafood products sector, by having it definitively abandon its whaling activity. It is now a question for the NGO to exert direct pressure on the general public to make the purchase of an entrance ticket to a dolphinarium, for example, “socially and morally unacceptable“.

Picture credits: Sea Shepherd Conservation Society

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