U.S. whaling negotiator hinted to Japan that IRS might pull Sea Shepherd Conservation Society nonprofit status

From ANIMAL PEOPLE,  January/February 2011:


MADRID--U.S. State Department messages published on January 3,  2011 by WikiLeaks and the leading Spanish newspaper El Pais disclose that U.S. diplomats in negotiation with senior Japanese officials entertained the possibility of asking the Internal Revenue Service to revoke the nonprofit status of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society.

The State Department messages also confirm the belief widespread among whale conservationists that current White House policy seeks as a first priority to lower the profile of confrontation with Japan over whaling.

Seeking revocation of the Sea Shepherds’ nonprofit status was discussed as a bargaining ploy from November 2009 through January 2010,  according to the diplomatic cables exposed by WikiLeaks and El Pais.

John V. Roos,  U.S. ambassador to Japan,  at direction of U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton,  tried to persuade Japanese officials to accept a deal whereby Japan would quit hunting whales within the Southern Oceans Whale Sanctuary in exchange for International Whaling Commission authorization to kill whales in Japanese coastal waters.  The outline of the deal was proposed at a “Whale Symposium” held in February 2008 by the Pew Charitable Trusts.

“Allowing Japan to continue commercial whaling is unacceptable,”  declared U.S. President Barack Obama in March 2009, but Obama subsequently appointed former Pew Institute director of whale conservation Monica Medina to head the U.S. delegation to the International Whaling Commission.

The series of four diplomatic cables began on November 2, 2009 with a dispatch from the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo to Washington D.C.,  describing a meeting held earlier in the day among U.S. deputy chief of mission James P. Zumwalt and Japanese officials including vice minister for international affairs Shuji Yamada and  fisheries agency counselor Joji Morishita.

“Yamada inquired about an investigation into the tax status of the U.S.-based NGO Sea Shepherd Conservation Society and repeated Japan’s request for the U.S. to take action against the organization, which he said created a very dangerous situation on the seas,”  the cable reported.

Zumwalt “replied that the U.S. places the highest priority on the safety of vessels and human life at sea,  and added that if any violations of U.S. law are discovered, we will take appropriate enforcement action.”

Morishita,  the cable continued,  “went on to say it would be easier for Japan to make progress in the International Whaling Commission negotiations if the U.S. were to take action against the Sea Shepherds.”

Whaling quotas

Medina participated in a follow-up meeting in Tokyo on November 4,  2009 with Japanese fisheries agency chief Katsuhiro Machida,  recounted the second of the cables disclosed by WikiLeaks. Machida “defended Japan’s proposal to base future reductions in numbers [of whales killed] on current catch quotas rather than the actual number of whales taken in past years.”  Because the Japanese whaling fleet has not killed  nearly as many whales as self-assigned quotas allowed in recent years,  basing purported reductions on the quotas instead of the actual whaling toll could enable Japan to claim to be killing fewer whales while killing the same number or more.

Machida “added that Australia’s proposal to phase out research whaling is a non-starter for Japan,”  the second cable continued.  “He said a successful outcome in the vote on Greenland’s proposal to take humpback whales and action by the U.S. and others on Japan’s complaints against the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society would positively influence Japan’s negotiating position in the future of the IWC process.”

The IWC in June 2010 did allow indigenous hunters in Greenland to kill 27 humpback whales during the next three years. Any humpback whales killed will be substracted from the quota of more than 200 minke and fin whales also allocated to Greenland.

Another U.S. diplomatic cable sent the same day,  describing the same meeting among Medina and Machida,  elaborated that “According to Machida,  political level consultations on whaling are necessary following the recent change in administration in Japan. However,  he cautioned the new Democratic Party of Japan administration shares the same fundamental position on whaling as the outgoing Liberal Democratic Party,  including support for the resumption of commercial whaling and continued research whaling.”

Medina responded that the U.S. government  “is looking for creative solutions to move the IWC forward,  as opposed to fundamental change,”  the cable recounted.  “She added that the U.S. is committed to finding a solution over the next two to three months [and] said she would advocate for including language on whaling in a summit statement” to be released after a November 13,  2009 meeting between President Obama and Japanese prime minister Nahoto Kan.  “The statement would express the desire of both countries to work out remaining differences on whaling,”  Medina proposed.

Medina “said given the history of Japan’s research whaling, and the increase in quota numbers in recent years,  there is room for Japan to cut from the actual number of whales taken.  A symbolic action by Japan,  such as agreeing not to take fin whales this year, would be a good indicator to the rest of the IWC of Japan’s commitment to reaching a solution.  The U.S. government would then work hard to make sure the European Union and Australia do not block a compromise.”

Machida warned that “a negative outcome in the vote” on the Greenland proposal to kill humpbacks could have negative political consequences for the IWC,  and asserted that “violent protests by the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society could limit Japanese flexibility in negotiations over the future of the IWC.”

Machida “said the Netherlands should have primary responsibility for taking action against the Sea Shepherds,”  since the current Sea Shepherd flagship is registered in the Netherlands, “but he appreciates the U.S. government initiative to address the group’s tax exempt status,”  the cable said.

Machida “said action on the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society would be a major element for Japan in the success of the overall negotiations,”  the cable continued.  “Medina replied that she hopes to work out differences with the EU on Greenland’s proposal on humpback whales prior to the March 2010 IWC intersessional meeting and include the issue in the overall agreement.  Regarding the Sea Shepherds,  she said she believes the U.S. goverment can demonstrate that the group does not deserve tax exempt status based on their aggressive and harmful actions.”

White House wanted deal

A cable from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s office to the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo on November 14,  2009 described the deal that Clinton hoped to broker with Japan over whaling,  as outlined to Japanese officials by Medina.

“In particular,”  the cable said.  “the governments of Japan and the United States would work towards reaching an understanding regarding a way forward for the International Whaling Commission that would include a meaningful reduction in Japan’s current whaling levels and U.S. support for international approval of sustainable small-type coastal whaling activities off the coast of Japan.  In addition,  Japan would no longer hunt fin or humpback whales in the Southern Ocean,  and the United States would uphold domestic and international laws to ensure safety at sea and encourage other governments to do the same.”

The U.S. Embassy was “at the highest possible level, requested to discuss reform of the IWC” with Japanese secretary of state Tetsuro Fukuyama and other influential political appointees.”

Concluded a list of talking points furnished to the embassy, “We understand that there is an important related issue regarding safety at sea of the Japanese research vessels that must also be addressed.”

The diplomatic cables released by Wikileaks and El Pais concluded by describing meetings on January 25 and January 26,  2010 among U.S. ambassador John V. Roos,  Fukuyama,  and Japan fisheries agency deputy director general Kazuhito Yamashita.

Roos asked Fukuyama and Yamashita “to press Iceland to lower its proposed quota for whaling in order to facilitate an overall agreement on whaling,”  the last cable said.  “Both Fukuyama and Yamashita said the government of Japan is reluctant to take such action.  Fukuyama cited a lack of desire to raise the profile of whaling to the political level, while Yamashita said Japan could not use trade measures to stop the import of whale meat from Finland.

Fukuyama expressed concern about creating a domestic political problem for the ruling Democratic Party of Japan.

Roos,  said the cable,  “replied that Iceland’s proposed take of fin whales is predicated on exporting to Japan,  and its catch quota is far in excess of what the Japanese market could absorb.”

The next day,  “Turning to harassment of the Japan-ese whaling fleet by the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society,  Yamashita said the Sea Shepherd actions have kept the fleet from reaching its quota the last few years,”  the cable reported.  “Yamashita said the government of Japan would come under pressure domestically if Sea Shepherd harassment continues to keep Japanese whalers from filling their quota after an agreement on reduced numbers is reached within the IWC.”

Roos “said the U.S. government is concerned about the safety of life at sea and is looking at the activity of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society.”

Watson responds

“The Sea Shepherd Conservation Society has named this year’s campaign Operation No Compromise precisely because of this deal that the U.S. and New Zealand were trying to make with Japan,  supported by Greenpeace and the World Wildlife Fund,”  Sea Shepherd founder Paul Watson told El Pais.  “The trade-off was a reduction of the Southern Ocean kill quota in return for legalizing Japanese whaling in the North Pacific.  Sea Shepherd had already reduced the kill quotas for the previous four years;  therefore, nothing would be achieved with such a compromise.

“The attempt to compromise with Japan failed” at the 2010 International Whaling Commission meetings,  Watson noted.  “The U.S. and Japan’s proposal was voted down by the majority led by Australia, the European Union,  and the Latin American members.”

“The U.S. government may well have looked into Sea Shepherd’s activities,”  Watson continued,  “and if they did,  they obviously did not find any irregularities or unlawful activities,  because Sea Shepherd was never contacted by any U.S. government official in connection with this matter.

“We have had our tax status since 1981,”  Watson later told Associated Press,  “and we have done nothing different since then to cause the IRS to change that.

“For Sea Shepherd,”  Watson concluded,  “the most important part of this document is the declaration by Japan that Sea Shepherd has been responsible for the whaling fleet not reaching their quotas for the last few years.”

Three Sea Shepherd vessels–the Steve Irwin,  the Bob Barker, and the high-speed Gojira–had through January 6,  2011 kept the Japanese fleet from killing any whales during the first month of their self-assigned 2010-2011 whaling season,  Watson said.  “The entire Japanese whaling fleet is on the run, and when they are running they are not killing whales. Sea Shepherd’s ships are chasing the slower factory ship the Nisshin Maru, while the faster Japanese harpoon vessels are chasing after Sea Shepherd’s fleet,”  Watson summarized.

–by Merritt Clifton,  with research by Shubhobroto Ghosh


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