A federal district court in Seattle has rejected a request by the Institute of Cetacean Research (ICR) to impose stiff remedial contempt sanctions upon Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, founder Captain Paul Watson, and six former members of the Sea Shepherd Board of Directors, and declined to try to force Sea Shepherd to seek repossession of former property.
This ruling comes on the heels of more than two years of litigation over whether Sea Shepherd, Watson, and the former board members were in contempt of a December 2012 preliminary injunction imposed by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. The injunction required Sea Shepherd to stay at least 500 yards away from ICR’s whaling fleet while it illegally killed whales in the Southern Ocean. Sea Shepherd USA discontinued all involvement in the Southern Ocean whale-protection campaigns after the injunction, but the campaigns were continued by foreign Sea Shepherd entities, including Sea Shepherd Australia and Sea Shepherd Netherlands.
After rejecting the recommendation of a special master, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals found that Sea Shepherd USA was in contempt of the preliminary injunction as a result of the actions of these foreign entities, in part because it had transferred one ship, the MV Bob Barker, to Sea Shepherd Netherlands after the injunction was issued. The Ninth Circuit also directed that Sea Shepherd pay ICR for its “damages” as a result of the alleged contempt during Operation Zero Tolerance in 2012-2013.
Although Sea Shepherd recently settled the action for contempt damages in the Ninth Circuit, ICR also filed a separate action in district court seeking so-called “remedial sanctions” that ICR asked to be imposed on Sea Shepherd to “ensure future compliance with the Injunction.” ICR specifically asked the court to impose remedial sanctions of $2 million upon Watson, $2 million upon Sea Shepherd, and $500,000 upon six former members of the Sea Shepherd Board of Directors. In addition, ICR asked the court to require Sea Shepherd to retake control and possession off the ships and equipment that the organization granted to foreign Sea Shepherd entities, including three ships granted long before the injunction.
The MV Brigitte Bardot was granted to Sea Shepherd Australia in December 2010. The MV Sam Simon was granted to Sea Shepherd Australia in October 2012. The MV Steve Irwin was granted to Sea Shepherd Netherlands in March 2012. The MV Bob Barker was granted to Sea Shepherd Netherlands, which already had a partial ownership interest in the vessel, in January 2013, shortly after the injunction was issued.
U.S. District Judge James L. Robart reviewed ICR’s requests and found them largely without merit. He noted in his ruling that “the court finds that the Institute’s requested sanctions are inappropriate because they either seek to coerce behavior beyond the scope of the Ninth Circuit’s injunction or impose excessive fines.”
The court found that ICR had not established that Sea Shepherd would have any basis for attempting to retake possession of its previously owned vessels because “there is no indication that the vessels and equipment are not being used by their respective owners ‘to support [an] ongoing mission of global marine wildlife conservation,” as the original grants required.
Judge Robart declined to impose any sanctions against the former Sea Shepherd Board of Directors. He also rejected ICR’s request that Sea Shepherd and Watson pay remedial sanctions of $2 million each. Instead he imposed a suspended fine of $5,000 on Watson and $10,000 on Sea Shepherd, only to be awarded if either party were found in contempt of the Ninth Circuit’s ruling in the future. These suspended fines will be lifted entirely if Watson and Sea Shepherd file affidavits within a month indicating their intent to abide by the injunction.
“Sea Shepherd and Paul Watson always intended to abide by the injunction, and fully intend to abide by the injunction in the future, so they will have no problem making this representation to the court,” said Claire Loebs Davis, an attorney representing Sea Shepherd and Watson in the ICR litigation.
The dispute arises from Japan’s long-running violation of the International Whaling Commission’s (IWC’s) ban on commercial whaling. Since the 1980s, Japan has granted “scientific research” permits to ICR, allowing ICR to kill more than 1,000 whales in the Southern Ocean Whale Sanctuary each year, including humpback whales and endangered fin whales. Last year, the International Court of Justice confirmed what Sea Shepherd has long maintained – and the world has long known – that Japan’s research rationale is a sham, and its whale hunts violate international law.