After a five-year legal battle, anti-whaling group Sea Shepherd Australia has released graphic footage of a Japanese whaling operation in the Southern Ocean that the Australian government refused to make public.
The footage was shot by Australian Customs personnel in 2008 but has only now been publicly released, following a long Freedom of Information fight that began in 2012.
The Australian government was concerned that its release would harm diplomatic relations with Japan.
Sea Shepherd’s managing director Jeff Hansen has described the vision as “harrowing”.
“You see minke whales swimming at 16, 17 knots to try and outrun these harpoon ships, before being hit with an explosive harpoon that sends shrapnel through their bodies,” he said.
“Hooks come out, and they dive deep, you can see see them diving to try and get away from this cable which they’re attached to and they’re slowly dragged back to the surface, before they’re met with the gunner on the harpoon ship who then shoots them.
“They take a long time to die before dying in a sea of their own blood.”
WARNING: CONTAINS GRAPHIC IMAGES
Long legal fight to see footage
The footage dates from when officers on the Customs vessel, Oceanic Viking, filmed Japan’s whaling fleet off the Antarctic coast in 2008.
The legal campaign to have it released goes back to 2012, when the NSW Environmental Defender’s Office lodged an urgent Freedom of Information application on behalf of Humane Society International.
Sea Shepherd later joined the action.
Mr Hansen said the video evidence was used for the case Australia brought before the International Court of Justice.
“Initially we were told that we were refused the footage because there was a pending court case,” he said.
“Then once that court case had been settled, and Japan’s whaling was found to be illegal, then the reason came out was diplomatic relations.
“In other words, they didn’t want to upset Japan. However, the Information Commissioner ruled that the Australian public had every right to see the footage.”
Chief executive of the NSW Environmental Defender’s Office David Morris said Australia’s position on whaling was well known.
“We put forward substantial evidence to the Information Commissioner that the information already in the public domain showed that there wouldn’t be the kind of impact on international relations that they were suggesting,” he said.
“For example, Australia had taken the Japanese government to the International Court of Justice on this very issue, and so it was unlikely that this information would cause problems between the two governments of the kind that would justify an exemption.”
Even though the Information Commissioner ruled in May that the release of the footage would not affect international relations, Mr Hansen said what was initially handed over was of “poor quality” and without audio and further approaches had to be made.
Japan’s ‘two enemies’
Mr Hansen said he expected the release of the footage would lead to greater public support for campaigns to end whaling.
But he has defended Sea Shepherd’s decision to end direct action against whaling vessels in the Southern Ocean.
“At the recent International Whaling Commission meeting, Japan stated that they have two enemies in this world — China and Sea Shepherd — and so they devised the program purely aimed at beating us,” Mr Hansen said.
“They’ve doubled their killing area and lowered their quota down to 333, meaning that even at our best years down there, sending all of our fleet we would struggle to save any whales.
“If we go down there and spend all of our money and resources and don’t save any whales, that comes at the expense of so many other vital campaigns that we’re doing elsewhere.”
Mr Hansen has called for stronger political pressure for Japan to be taken to the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea.