Stricken anti-whaling boat sinks while under tow toward pristine Antarctic coast

By Rod Mcguirk, AP
Thursday, January 7, 2010

Anti-whaling boat sinks in Antarctica

CANBERRA, Australia — Militant conservationists abandoned a sinking ship to resume their hunt for Japanese whalers Friday in a campaign that has heightened environmental concerns for the pristine Antarctic battleground.

The bow of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society’s Ady Gil was sheared off Wednesday in a collision with a far larger Japanese whaling ship — the most serious clash in what has become an annual confrontation off the frozen continent.

The whaler, Shonan Maru No. 2, suffered no apparent damage. Both sides blame the other for the collision, which occurred as the Ady Gil harassed the Japanese fleet.

Japan kills about 1,200 whales a year in Antarctica under what it says is a scientific program allowed by the International Whaling Commission, despite a moratorium on commercial whaling. Critics say the program is a front for illegal whaling, and Sea Shepherd sends ships to Antarctica each season to try to stop the hunt — an effort portrayed on the Animal Planet TV series “Whale Wars.”

Amid fears the Ady Gil was sinking, a second Sea Shepherd ship, the Bob Barker, began towing it Thursday toward French research base Dumont d’Urville, 185 miles (300 kilometers) to the south.

But the tow rope snapped after only 23 miles (37 kilometers) because the Ady Gil was filling with water, Bob Barker’s first officer Peter Hammarsedt said.

The Bob Barker left the Ady Gil to sink and resumed its pursuit of the Japanese whalers.

“We made the call that the vessel would sink in two to three hours, and so at that point we decided to once again take up our pursuit of the Japanese whaling fleet,” Hammarsedt told The Associated Press by satellite phone.

Hammarsedt said the sunken boat should not leave an oil slick. “We spent the greater part of yesterday transferring all the fuel, oil and batteries and any other environmental contaminates to begin towing,” he said.

But Antarctic environmental expert Alan Hemmings said it would have been safer to scuttle the stricken vessel deep at sea.

“Dumont d’Urville is one of the most important bird breeding locations in the Antarctic,” Hemmings said. “Any risk of fouling would have been worse there than in open ocean.”

Hemmings, an associate professor at the University of Canterbury’s Antarctic studies center, said he was concerned by the increasingly violent clashes during Sea Shepherd’s six-year campaign to prevent whaling in the Antarctic Ocean during the southern summers.

Conservationists and whalers’ ships have collided five times, with four of those collisions in the past two seasons.

“Whilst I abhor whaling, it does seem that this particular set of tactics have quite a lot of flaws in them, not the least of these is the environmental risk,” Hemmings said.

Sea Shepherd received support Friday from activist Ric O’Barry, the former dolphin trainer for the TV series “Flipper” and star of “The Cove,” a U.S. film about killing dolphins in the Japanese town of Taiji.

“This violent attack in the whale sanctuary proves that the Japan government and its Fisheries Agency have no regard for whales, dolphins or the people who want to save them,” O’Barry said in an e-mail response to questions.

“Japan’s bogus scientific whale research and Japan’s war against the ocean’s wildlife must end,” O’Barry said.

Hammarsedt said Sea Shepherd’s attempt to salvage the Ady Gil had been responsible and blamed the Japanese for any environmental risk.

“The complete disregard that they showed for both the safety of the lives of the crew of the Ady Gil as well as the integrity of the hull of that vessel shows that they have no concern for their environmental impact down here whatsoever,” he said.

Environment Minister Peter Garrett on Friday ramped up pressure on Japan to end whaling by threatening legal action if diplomatic efforts do not show results before the next International Whaling Commission summit in June.

“If we don’t see substantial and significant achievement in respect of those negotiations … then the consideration of legal action will be one that would be fully in front of us,” Garrett told reporters.

Australia says it could argue that Japan’s whaling is illegal before the International Court of Justice or the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea.

The whaling is conducted in international waters, but usually within the huge patch of ocean that is designated Australia’s maritime rescue zone and that Canberra considers a whale sanctuary.

The whalers have changed tactics this season, sending boats to tail the Sea Shepherd vessels and reporting their positions so the main fleet can keep its distance.

The Ady Gil became the first of the three Sea Shepherd vessels to find the factory ship, Nisshin Maru, on Wednesday before the collision.

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