They’re baaaaaaaccck. Whale hunting season kicked off in Japan last week as three ships set off with a security vessel on their annual pilgrimage to cull hundreds of minke and fin whales in Antarctic waters. And so begins the annual showdown between the whalers and the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, the tenacious, publicity-savvy anti-whaling group that chases the Japanese fleet around the frigid waters of the sixth continent each winter. The yearly spectacle features scuba-clad activists zipping around in fast boats, lobbing stink bombs at the whaling ships and generally making life miserable for the crew who keep Japan’s 19th-century dream alive. The annual tussle even has its own reality show.
Whaling is not an easy practice to defend these days, particularly when recent polls have shown that 95% of Japanese eat whale meat rarely, if at all. The state-backed industry, which Japan considers its sovereign right to pursue as part of a centuries-old tradition, is under attack both by environmental groups at home and abroad. And yet the government did not do its beleaguered case any favors when it confirmed last week that $29 million of the national post-tsunami recovery fund had been allotted to the whaling industry, including to provide extra security for the whaling fleet.
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They had to know that wasn’t going to go down well. Environmental groups in Japan are outraged that the disaster fund is being used to prop up an industry they have been fighting against for years. Though commercial whaling has been banned for decades, Japan is one of a handful of nations that continue their catch with the permission of the International Whaling Commission (IWC) for scientific purposes, culling about 1000 whales annually. “Pouring billions of yen into Antarctic whaling during this time of crisis is downright shameful,” Junichi Sato, head of Greenpeace Japan, told the Guardian last week. “Japan cannot afford to waste money on whaling in the Antarctic when its people are suffering at home.”
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Tokyo says the whaling industry needs the support of the fund to get back on its feet after March 11 just like other fishing communities on the devastated northeastern coast of Japan. Port towns like Ayukawa that were built on the back of the multi-million dollar whaling industry were destroyed along with so much else, and, like their neighbors, residents there want to get their businesses back up and running, too. “Many people in the area eat whale meat,” an official from Japan’s Fisheries Agency told CNN. “They are waiting for Japan’s commercial whaling to resume and it is their hope for recovery.”
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But padding the industry with reconstruction money is not the end of Japan’s efforts to protect its scientific endeavors. Last year, the government caved in to the pressure Sea Shepherd exerted on its ships and crew and called off the hunt early, with only about one-fifth of its intended catch. On Dec. 9, the Institute of Cetacean Research, the government body that manages the yearly cull, announced that it filed a lawsuit along with shipowner Kyodo Senpaku Kaisha against Sea Shepherd and its founder, Paul Watson. (See the press release here.) ICR and Kyodo Senpaku are seeking a court order to prevent “SSCS and its founder Paul Watson from engaging in activities at sea that could cause injuries to the crews and damage to the vessels.”
Watson, whose organization is based in the U.S. state of Washington, responded immediately to the news of the law suit. “We have not caused a single injury nor have we been charged with a crime or even reprimanded by anyone for our actions,” he is quoted as saying on the organization’s web site. “This is simply a case of using the courts to harass us. I don’t believe they have a case and I doubt a U.S. court would take this seriously. Unlike Japan, the courts in the United States don’t automatically do what the government demands that they do.” The organization is currently planning to send 88 crew members on three ships to do its yearly battle under the banner of “Operation Divine Wind.”
Krista Mahr is a correspondent at TIME. Find her on Twitter at @kristamahr. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.