Jan. 30, 2007 -- An American-based conservation society patrolling the waters of the Ross Sea off of Antarctica is offering a $25,000 reward for the coordinates of Japanese whaling ships.
The Sea Shepherd Society announced the reward during its "Operation Leviathan" mission to stop illegal whaling in the Southern Ocean. Two Sea Shepherd ships, the Farley Mowat and the Robert Hunter, are in the Antarctic with 70 volunteers from 14 countries. They believe they are within 500 miles of the Japanese whaling fleet.
The reward comes days after Japan called a special meeting of members of the International Whaling Commission next month to help lift a global moratorium on hunting whales. Several countries opposed to whaling have said they may boycott the assembly.
Capt. Alex Cornelissen believes the Japanese are using satellite technology to evade them. In an interview over satellite phone from the Ross Sea aboard the Robert Hunter, Cornelissen told ABC News that they know the Japanese bought a $150,000 ship-tracking program that allows them to monitor the Sea Shepherd ships, putting the conservation effort at a severe disadvantage.
"They can monitor all the movement in the region," he said. "They can see where we are, but we can't see them."
The $25,000 reward is not unheard of, but it is one of the largest amounts the group has offered for information. Cornelissen said they would save that much in the cost of gas if they knew where to go. He believes the New Zealand government knows exactly where the Japanese ships are because the country's air force filmed the fleet with a reconnaissance aircraft. The footage, showing the fleet slaughtering whales, was released to the media and has been aired around the world.
Cornelissen said they have not received any substantive leads, but they are "hopeful that in the next few days someone will come forward."
New Zealand Concerned About Violence
New Zealand Environment Minister Chris Carter, who released the footage to the media on Friday and has spearheaded his country's effort against illegal whaling, has so far refused to give Sea Shepherd the exact coordinates after expressing concern that violence might ensue if he shared the location.
"It was a difficult decision," Carter said. "We absolutely support the motivation in stopping whaling, but we have real concerns that there could be loss of life if the protests continue. Three minutes in that ocean and you are dead with hypothermia…I am not going to allow a dangerous situation to become worse."
Cornelissen said the New Zealand government's refusal to give the coordinates of the Japanese fleet makes them complicit and that "any government that has the ability to do so should stop illegal activity." He believes that New Zealand is caving to political pressure from Japan.
A global moratorium on commercial whaling was put in place in 1986. However, Japanese whalers continue to kill whales under what they described as scientific research purposes. But, according to conservation groups, they admitted that the whale meat ends up on dinner plates. The Japanese use a loophole: Article 8 of the International Convention on the Regulation of Whaling states that International Whaling Commission members can award themselves quotas to kill whales for scientific purposes.
Greenpeace to Join Search, but Don't Expect Cooperation
Japan plans to kill up to 935 Antarctic minke whales and 10 endangered fin whales this season under its controversial JARPA II scientific whaling program in the Southern Ocean. New Zealand Environment Minister Carter says that the Japanese whaling for "scientific purposes" is "exploitation" and kills more whales than the commercial industry.
The two Sea Shepherd ships have already searched hundreds of square miles for the Japanese whaling fleet. And in three weeks, they will have to leave the area and go back to port to refuel and get supplies, making the so-far unsuccessful effort all the more frustrating.
Last week, the Greenpeace ship The Esperanza set sail from New Zealand and is also attempting to catch up to the Japanese whaling ships. It will try to disrupt their efforts by using inflatable boats to get between the harpoons and their prey.
The Esperanza will arrive in the area at the end of this week, but don't expect cooperation between Greenpeace and the Sea Shepherd Society. Greenpeace has criticized Sea Shepherd for not maintaining the "principle of peaceful protest" and says it would not give them the coordinates even if they knew them.
A similar anti-whaling effort in the Southern Ocean by Greenpeace last year ended in controversy, as both sides -- the Japanese and Greenpeace -- accused the other of deliberately ramming each others' ships.