Sea Shepherd's Anti-Whaling Campaign

Illustration by Sean McCabe; Source images: Monica and Michael Sweet / Getty Images, William West / AFP-Getty Images

Japan's government-subsidized whaling program is in dire straits. Last week the Institute of Cetacean Research, as the program is called, reported a $20.5 million loss, and blamed the activist group Sea Shepherd Conservation Society for making them abandon their Antarctic hunt two weeks early.

"We're happy to take the blame for that," jokes Peter Hammarstedt, the 27-year-old captain of the Bob Barker, a mid-century Norwegian whaler that the environmental group uses to stop Japanese ships, which kill several hundred whales a year. Japan claims it is merely conducting legal if lethal research, permitted under the international whaling moratorium, but the scientific merit of the studies has been widely questioned and the whale meat is sold to the Japanese public. "It's illegal going on 26 years," Hammarstedt claims. "The time for negotiation is over."

Sea Shepherd is a vigilante splinter of Greenpeace started by Paul Watson, a cofounder of the environmental group who was exiled for the bellicose act of throwing a seal hunter's club in the ocean. Hammarstedt himself found Greenpeace too gentle for his tastes. "Greenpeace is a protest organization," he says. "We are a law-enforcement organization. Our goal is to shut these guys down." To that end, Sea Shepherd rams ships, hurls stink bombs, and fouls propellers. In 2010 the front of its yacht was shorn off by a whaling ship, an event captured by a film crew from Animal Planet's Whale Wars, providing Sea Shepherd with attention far more valuable than the $1.5 million vessel. "We've never lost a game of high-seas chicken," boasts Hammarstedt.

None of this is strictly legal, but the murkiness of international maritime law and the controversy surrounding Japan's whaling program have enabled Sea Shepherd to hassle the whaling fleet for years. But while Hammarstedt's group contributed to the program's multimillion-dollar shortfall, they had help from the Japanese public's waning appetite for whale meat. Despite a shortened Antarctic hunt, three quarters of the meat from a subsequent North Pacific hunt went unsold at auction. (A Gallup International poll sponsored by Greenpeace found that only 5 percent of Japanese people "sometimes" eat whale meat, and many of them are elderly.)

So should the Sea Shepherds just pack up and leave the whaling industry to wane on its own? One professor of international relations at Tohoku University, Ishii Atsushi, says Japan is continuing its whaling simply to save face. If Sea Shepherd would leave, he says, the fleet would happily cut its losses and go home. Hammarstedt, though, isn't satisfied: Sea Shepherd plans to return to the Antarctic in December with a new ship, the Sam Simon, named for The Simpsons' creator who funded it. "This year it's operation Zero Tolerance. They haven't been able to turn a profit for at least two years. I think this campaign could be the last."