(Photograph) - It is difficult to see how a 7,500-tonne ship could feel threatened by three men in a rubber dinghy, rather easier to see how the life of a passing whale might be at risk from its exploding harpoons. But the skirmish between environmentalists from Greenpeace and the whaling ship Nisshin Maru two years ago was not just a battle over whether the whale should be saved or slain. It was a full-on propaganda war.
At a meeting of the International Whaling Commission (IWC), the Japanese delegate gave his version of events. "Contrary to their claims of peaceful protest, a Greenpeace campaign against Japan's programme in the Antarctic earlier this year involved illegal and violent protests that risked the lives of Japanese sailors and crews."
The Greenpeace dinghy, under fire from high-pressure hoses, had attached itself to this minke whale to stop it being hauled up the landing bay of the factory ship. The Japanese call the Nisshin Maru a "whale research laboratory vessel", part of its pretence that the 400 whales it kills each year are culled for scientific purposes - even though the meat is sold for human consumption. Greenpeace calls this practice a "deadly scam" and accuses Japan of exploiting a loophole in the moratorium on commercial whaling to give its whaling a "thin veil of respectability".
Not long ago, whales were a prize catch and hunting them was a legal, if hazardous, profession. Early whalers would throw harpoons by hand from their flat-decked boats, shoot their prey and haul it aboard. The meat was eaten, the blubber burned in lamps, and the bones used to stiffen corsets and umbrellas.
The introduction of factory ships armed with cannon-fired harpoons that explode on impact saw the annual whale cull run to tens of thousands by the 1930s. By the 1960s, blue whales, the largest mammals on earth, had been hunted to the point of extinction. In the UK, once among the world's most enthusiastic hunters of these creatures, whaling stopped in 1963. The IWC effectively banned commercial whaling in 1985, although it allows some countries to continue subsistence whaling where livelihoods depend on it - the islands of St Vincent and the Grenadines are allowed to catch two whales each year, and Greenland and Alaska have larger quotas. But Norway, which captures around 600 whales a year in its own waters, and Japan ignore IWC directives.
Japan refuses to recognise the internationally declared whale sanctuary of the Southern Ocean, which encircles the Antarctic and is its main hunting ground for whalemeat. "Asking Japan to abandon this part of its culture would compare to Australians being asked to stop eating meat pies or the English being asked to go without fish and chips," pleads the Japanese Whaling Association.
Perhaps this appeal to the sanctity of national cuisine might be more convincing if there were only a few thousand cod left in our oceans. Meantime, the whalers accuse Greenpeace of "terroristic stunts", while Greenpeace prefers to call it "direct action". Whose side are you on?
News and links on whaling: www.whaling.com Japanese view on whaling: www.jp-whaling-assn.comGreenpeace's account of Southern Ocean campaign: www.greenpeace.orgoceanswhales
Photograph by John Cunningham