Is U.S. considering strong action against anti-whaling activists?

The U.S.-based Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, which on Saturday began harassing Japanese whaling crews in Antarctic waters for a seventh consecutive season, might have a different type of fight on its hands: trying to hold onto its tax-exempt status.

U.S. diplomatic cables dated Jan. 1 and posted today on the secret-sharing website WikiLeaks reveal that Japan recently pressured the United States to punish the nonprofit Sea Shepherd as part of a compromise arrangement in which Japan would reduce its whale quota but be allowed to legally hunt whales commercially in the region.

Japan annually targets about 900 minke whales over a period of a few months each season, beginning in mid-December. The country claims to be conducting scientific missions and uses a lethal research loophole within the framework of a 1986 International Whaling Commission ban on commercial whaling.

The hunts are approved by Japan’s Fisheries Agency and run by the Institute of Cetacean Research. Many have disputed the research claim and questioned the need for Japan to kill so many whales for whatever research might be carried out. Whale meat from the hunts is sold commercially in Japan.

According to a series of cables, Japanese officials complained that Sea Shepherd’s tactics were diminishing any chance of reaching a compromise on the number of whales Japan kills each year, and acknowledged that Sea Shepherd was hampering the hunts.

Monica Medina, the U.S representative to the IWC, discussed with Japanese officials the possibility of revoking Sea Shepherd’s tax-exempt status. She believed the U.S. would be able to show that the nonprofit group didn’t deserve the beneficial status based on its aggressive and dangerous actions.

Sea Shepherd has interrupted hunts by tossing stink bombs onto whaling vessels and throwing ropes onto propellers, and using its vessels to get between whales and harpoon boats. The confrontations have become increasingly tense and last year a Sea Shepherd boat had to be scuttled after a collision in the extremely remote region. So far, nobody has died or been seriously injured as a direct result of the confrontations.

Medina, a top NOAA official, could not be reached to address the validity of the cables or whether the U.S. is still considering taking action against Sea Shepherd. NOAA spokesman Scott Smullen said the agency “does not comment on materials, including classified documents, which may have been leaked.”

The cables also reveal that Australia remains firmly opposed to any deal that would legitimize commercial whaling in the region, which includes the Southern Ocean Whale Sanctuary or the Australian Antarctic Territory.

Paul Watson, the captain and founder of Sea Shepherd, said this year’s campaign theme, “No Compromise,” is based on the same premise.

— Image showing activists alongside a harpoon boat is courtesy of Sea Shepherd