The Sea Shepherd Conservation Society recently began using unmanned drones in its campaign against Japanese whalers, helping it track down Japan's Nisshin Maru factory ship last month in the Southern Ocean. But while such drones could mark a sea change in the war on whaling, they're also making a few waves back on land.

The Australian government has publicly scolded Sea Shepherd, for instance, ordering a new environmental impact assessment (EIA) if it wants to keep using the drones, the Sydney Morning Herald reports. While the group has already filed an EIA and sought approval under the Antarctic Treaty, the Australian Antarctic Division says its existing EIA doesn't mention drones.

"I do not recall drones being included in your EIA," AAD manager Gillian Slocum wrote in a recent email to Sea Shepherd, the Herald reports. "If you do intend to use them in the Antarctic Treaty area then this activity must be subject to the same assessment as the rest of your season activities have been."

The AAD reportedly sent the email after news broke that Sea Shepherd had used a drone to locate the Nisshin Maru on Dec. 24. That drone — a durable, long-range Osprey model — was donated by Bayshore Recycling Corp., a New Jersey recycling company that supports Sea Shepherd's anti-whaling efforts. Named "Nicole Montecalvo," it can cover 190 miles per flight with its on-board cameras and other spy equipment (see the video below of an Osprey in flight).

Sea Shepherd already has a helicopter to help it chase Japan's whaling fleet, but says it needs drones to efficiently scan vast swaths of ocean as whalers try to evade detection. Beyond surveillance, drones will also "protect the fleet, her crew, and alert them to potential dangers when their helicopter may not be available for use," according to a press release. The Nicole Montecalvo was previously used in a mission to stop bluefin tuna poaching off the coast of Libya, the release adds, highlighting how drones can help with a variety of conservation projects.

"We can cover hundreds of miles with these drones, and they have proven to be valuable assets for this campaign," says Sea Shepherd founder Paul Watson. As the Guardian reports, Watson and his colleagues hope drones will eventually patrol other at-risk ecosystems, from the Galapagos Islands to South Africa's Kruger National Park. "There is huge potential and great value in this technology — for our expedition it is wonderful," says crew member Eleanor Lister.

Aerial drones have faced mounting public scrutiny in recent years, mainly due to their role as U.S. spy tools in Afghanistan and Pakistan. But as the Los Angeles Times reported last year, they're also increasingly common in civilian life, helping with tasks such as crop inspection, wildlife surveys, flood response and wildfire control. Drones are becoming so prevalent, in fact, that the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration will reportedly propose new rules this month to regulate their civilian and commercial uses.

And while some critics claim U.S. spy drones violate international law, Sea Shepherd says its drones do the opposite: By enforcing the International Whaling Commission's 1986 ban on commercial whale hunts, it says its drones uphold international law. (Japan has long defied the IWC ban, insisting it hunts whales for research.)

"Everyone here at Bayshore is thrilled with the Sea Shepherd's news of not only saving the lives of many whales, but knowing our drone will continue to track the Japanese whaling fleet in this chase," Bayshore marketing coordinator Elena Bagarozza tells the Guardian. Japan only caught 16 percent of its 1,000-whale quota last season, which, according to Sea Shepherd, means about 800 whales were saved. Japan cited harrassment by Sea Shepherd when it ended last year's whaling season early.

Australia is among the most vocal critics of Japan's whaling, blasting the practice at IWC meetings and letting Sea Shepherd launch anti-whaling missions from Australian ports. And while the AAD has scolded the group for using drones, Watson tells the Sydney Morning Herald the rebuke may have been prompted by pressure from Japan. "I find it interesting that they can tell us we can't use drones in the Southern Ocean, but Japan can kill whales in the same waters," he says. "I think Tokyo has made another complaint to Australia."

Despite some setbacks — not just legal issues with drones, but also damage to two of its ships — Sea Shepherd will continue this year's battle against Japanese whalers, Watson says. And he expects drones like the Nicole Montecalvo to play a decisive role. "This is going to be a long hard pursuit from here to the coast of Antarctica," he said in a statement on Christmas Eve. "But thanks to these drones, we now have an advantage we have never had before — eyes in the sky."

Check out this video to see what an Osprey drone looks like in flight:

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Russell McLendon ( @russmclendon ) writes about humans and other wildlife.

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