Human Interaction

Whale Wars Are Ships Bound to the

posted: 05/15/12

Animal Planet presents this feature as a conversation with legal scholars. We draw no conclusions, other than that reasonable legal minds differ on these issues.

DR. TIMOTHY STEPHENS: "So the 'Law of the Sea' is an ancient body of law going back three or four centuries, which regulates how the seas can be used in terms of navigation on the sea, the use of resources of the sea, fishing, whaling, the use of undersea resources, you know, mining for oil and gas and so on. But it's really only in the 20th Century that the Law of the Sea was codified, in a Convention on the Law of the Sea in 1982. And that has very detailed rules in it about the kinds of things you can do on the sea in terms of navigation, regulation of policy, and so on.

"When you look at the way in which Sea Shepherd engages other vessels on the high seas, you have to look at the law relating to freedom of navigation on the high seas and safety. There's extensive international law to deal with maritime safety. Now, the rules about how close you're meant to go to other vessels... Now, look, it's hard to say exactly whether Sea Shepherd has breached or has complied with any of this law. I just don't know enough about the various incidents Sea Shepherd's been involved in.

"But as a general rule, vessels should not get too close to other vessels on the high seas if it's going to endanger human life... Or the environment, for that matter, particularly when you think about where these activities are taking place: in very challenging sea, in climatic conditions, very pristine environment. I think you'd have to say that both the Japanese and Sea Shepherd need to be very careful about how their vessels interact, because you don't want a human or an environmental tragedy."

DR. DAVID CARON: "Speaking from someone who (...) has gone to sea, these things [that Sea Shepherds are alleged to have done] are all dangerous, everything that's done. Normally on the bridge of a ship, if a ship appears on the horizon, you start to get nervous. Because collisions happen, even though the ocean's so big. For someone to follow you so closely, for someone to close on your vessel — to throw things on your deck — is a very, very risky operation.

"Sometimes there's talk about law enforcement and boarding vessels at sea and stopping the illicit trade in nuclear weapons. If you speak to any law enforcement agent on the oceans, no one wants to board at sea. It is so risky to even close within a haling distance of a vessel. To do what's going on is a very risky business. And it's quite a responsibility to have accepted that it's your authority to do that.

"Well, on the high seas, there is no distance that is appropriate or inappropriate. The question is: when do you unreasonably interfere with the other vessel's presence? If the vessel was fishing, there is a greater distance. You have to respect their nets, you have to respect what's necessary to operations. If the vessel is simply navigating, you could close to some distance. But again, it's a question of reasonableness to not interfere with their safe exercise of their right to navigate."

DR. TIMOTHY STEPHENS: "So if you look at the law which regulates the ramming of other vessels on the high seas, it's clear you cannot intentionally ram or damage another vessel on the high seas. Now, that breaches a range of rules to do with maritime safety. The other problem area potentially that you're getting to is that there's a very strong convention agreed on back in the 1980s, to look at the safety of maritime navigation and basically to deal with maritime terrorism. Now, we don't want to rush to judgment about the activities of Sea Shepherd. We don't want to label it terrorism prematurely, or in some kind of slapdash way. We have to be precise about this."

MORE: Japanese Whalers

More on
Whale Wars