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Close ports to Sea Shepherd or risk sharing guilt for its vigilantism

Originally published: The Australian. 23 November 2016.

Author: Julia Jabour & Anthony Bergin 

Sea Shepherd is again heading into dangerous territory. Last week’s announcement that its new $12 million custom-built Ocean Warrior has arrived here for a Southern Ocean incursion this summer is disturbing.

Ship captain Adam Meyerson is boasting the group’s new vessel is a game changer because of its increased speed, long-range fuel tanks, helicopter landing pad and 20,000 litres-per-minute water cannon.

Sea Shepherd is once more aiming to engage in close combat with the Japanese research fleet. That puts this group in the cate¬gory of an environmental non-state combatant. It’s in an inter¬national area engaged in the use of force, with actions close to vigilantism. It enjoys the reputation of piracy, but for quasi public rather than private ends. The International Court of Justice judgment in the whaling case two years ago was a hollow victory for environmental activists. The court didn’t rule that what the Japanese were doing was commercial whaling. Nor did it say that issuing permits to take whales by lethal means for scientific research was illegal. This left open the option of a new Japanese scientific whaling program.

There have been resolutions, ignored by Sea Shepherd, from the whaling commission itself, the International Maritime Organisation and a joint statement earlier this year by the governments of Australia, The Netherlands, New Zealand and the US condemning actions at sea by environmental groups that might cause injury, loss of life, damage to property or the marine environment.

The imminent deployment of the Ocean Warrior to the Southern Ocean from an Australian port puts the Turnbull government in a difficult position. The vessel’s flagged to The Netherlands, a long-time supporter of Sea Shepherd. Last year the Dutch national postcode lottery gave Sea Shepherd about €8 million towards the cost of building a new ship for its Southern Ocean campaigns.

But the Antarctic treaty obliges parties, including Australia and The Netherlands, not to engage in any activity that would cause the region to become the scene of international discord. That applies to activities conducted by their nationals or in which ships under their jurisdiction are involved.

Australia should distance itself from Sea Shepherd’s dangerous high-seas confrontations with the Japanese. They are risking causing serious injury or loss of life and directly contributing to a major fuel spill if a ship down south is damaged or sunk. The remoteness of the area where their operations take place makes rescue or clean-up operations difficult. Australia would have responsibilities here if such an incident occurred in our polar search and rescue zone.

Any state has an interest in allowing access to its ports for merchant vessels from other countries so their own vessels will receive reciprocal treatment. But with protest boats there is not the same interest in achieving this reciprocity. Regulating port access is a powerful way to control shipping: port state measures have improved standards of merchant shipping by ensuring compliance with required standards, and served to combat high-seas illegal fishing by banning access to ports by vessels that have engaged in such activities.

In deciding whether to allow vessels to enter its ports, a state is free to impose conditions: gaining access to a port is a privilege, not a right. Nearly 20 years ago we banned Japanese fishing vessels from our ports when Tokyo wouldn’t agree on acceptable catch limits for bluefin tuna.

We shouldn’t be supporting Sea Shepherd’s acts of aggression in the Southern Ocean. This isn’t only a safety of life at sea issue but an environmental one as well. It’s understood the Australian arm of Sea Shepherd has submitted an application to the Australian Antarctic Division for its activities in the Antarctic this season and received the required environmental authorisation. But the Turnbull government should be distancing itself from Sea Shepherd’s dangerous tactics by banning its protest vessels, including the Ocean Warrior, from our ports.

Julia Jabour is senior lecturer, Institute for Marine and Antarctic Studies, University of Tasmania. Anthony Bergin is senior research fellow at the Australian National University’s National Security College and senior analyst, Australian Strategic Policy Institute.