Shepherding the Seas

Steve Roest, Twickenham GP candidate and UK Director of Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, the Jolly Roger flying eco-warriors, recently returned from ‘Operation Musashi’ against the Japanese whaling fleet in Antarctica. Mark Sanders-Barwick, also a Sea Shepherd volunteer, talks to Steve about Sea Shepherd and his reasoning behind joining the Antarctica campaign.

Commercial whaling has been subject to a worldwide moratorium since 1986, but Japan has carried on killing whales with recourse to Article VIII of the International Whaling Commission’s (IWC) founding treaty, which permits lethal sampling for the purposes of research, and allows for the public sale of whale meat as a by-product. 1000 whales are taken each year, including endangered fin whales and pregnant females, from an area of ocean officially designated as a protected whale sanctuary.

Japan’s whaling programme, run by the government-subsidised Institute of Cetacean Research, has produced no peer-reviewed scientific papers and neither the IWC nor the scientific community takes seriously its claim to be conducting research in Antarctica. The IWC and numerous governments around the world have denounced and condemned Japan for its whaling. Australia even issued a federal court ruling, but governments will not act in the Southern oceans, although Japan has refrained from hunting Humpback whales after an international outcry, headed by the people of Australia and New Zealand.

A few villages around the edges of Japan can lay claim to a legitimate historical tradition of whaling. The rest of the country had never tasted whale meat until after World War II, when American occupation forces promoted it to the impoverished and malnourished populace as a relatively cheap and abundant source of protein.

Despite aggressive government marketing campaigns and subsidies, only a very small percentage of Japanese say they eat whale regularly. Those who still claim to enjoy the taste tend to be older citizens and nostalgic baby-boomers. Japan’s major political parties, all of which support whaling, are well stocked with those. There is a huge glut of whale meat stockpiled in freezers and every year, when the fleet returns from Antarctica, it gets bigger.

The whaling programme is losing money and public support. This year a Japanese volunteer joined the Sea Shepherd vessel The Steve Irwin. This whaling season has been another disaster for Japan. The fleet returned to homeport of Shimonoseki two weeks early because of the crew’s actions, and one harpoon vessel was disabled due to propeller damage sustained navigating an ice flow in an attempt to avoid us. Sea Shepherd saved 305 whales this campaign, the Japanese whalers only killed 1 fin whale out of their self-allocated quota of 50 and 679 out of 935 Minke whales. The President of the Japanese whaling fleet said his blood was “boiling with anger” because of the actions of Sea Shepherd.

“I did the right thing in going to Antarctica.” Said Steve, “I knew that when I witnessed the flensing of a whale for the first time, this had been following the slow torturous death of the whale just a few miles away. You see, although explosive harpoons are used, death isn’t instantaneous. Death… well at least the cessation of a struggle anyway, was 26 minutes for that whale. 26 minutes of agonised thrashing at the end of line with a harpoon, that had blown a large hole on entry, embedded in its body. Meanwhile, crew from the whaler are firing rifle shots into the body as the ocean turned red.

“I was called onto bridge at first light one morning. The spectacle I witnessed at the top of the bridge stairs is indelibly burned on my mind forever. The Steve Irwin was positioned directly behind the stern of the factory vessel Nisshin Maru. I had a clear view up the slipway as a minke was hauled up the slipway, blood gushing from its body. Meanwhile, Japanese crew were carving up whale carcases using huge flensing knives whilst the decks were swimming with blood, blubber and gore.

“That confirmed in my mind that I was fighting a just and righteous cause and that Sea Shepherd’s enforcement actions against illegal whaling in the Southern oceans was completely justified.”

In its 32 years, Sea Shepherd has rammed and disabled over a dozen whaling and illegal fishing vessels on the high seas, and scuppered others in ports by sneaking aboard and opening valves to let in seawater, and on one occasion by blowing holes in the hulls with limpet mines. Other tactics include fouling propellers with entangling lines, hurling aboard nausea-inducing stink bombs and cellulose powder to make the decks slippery, and direct high-speed ramming. They have sunk more ships than the Canadian Navy without injury or loss of human life, and all without being convicted of a crime in any court of law.

While many organisations, including other environmental groups, are critical of these direct action techniques, labeling the group as “eco-terrorists”, Sea Shepherd feels its mission is to bring attention to what’s happening to the whales, the seals, the sharks and the other marine conservation campaigns we’re involved in. The oceans are dying in our lifetime and it’s not for want of laws and regulations. The problem is enforcement. Governments are not enforcing the laws, so we have to.

According to The United Nations World Charter for Nature, section 21, any nongovernmental organisation or individual is empowered to uphold international conservation law in areas beyond national jurisdiction and specifically on the high seas. The group does not destroy property unless it’s been used in the commission of a crime. As far as the group is concerned, an eco-terrorist is someone who brings terror into the natural environment, like a whaling fleet with explosive-tipped harpoons coming into a whale sanctuary to kill a thousand whales.

The founder of Sea Shepherd is 58-year-old Captain Paul Watson, a Canadian national. Watson was one of the co-founders of Greenpeace in 1972 and the first officer on its early campaigns against whaling, and the clubbing and skinning of baby harp seals on the Canadian ice floes. In 1977 Watson was voted off the Greenpeace board of directors. They believed he was a troublesome maverick, opposed to the incoming president Patrick Moore (who has since gone to work for the nuclear and forestry industries), and for refusing to apologise for an incident on the Newfoundland pack ice. Watson grabbed a club away from a sealer and threw his pelts and the club into the sea, which was deemed a violation of Greenpeace’s non-violent principles, bad publicity and an impediment to the organisation’s ability to raise money. Later that year Watson founded Sea Shepherd.

We were lucky enough to have Watson speak in the UK at a fundraising event for Sea Shepherd last year. He is an amazing orator, but there was one particular passage that moved everyone. Watson describes an incident in 1975 when Greenpeace decided to confront the Soviet whaling fleet in the Pacific. Watson and a cameraman boarded an inflatable Zodiac and sped out between the harpooners and a pod of sperm whales, hoping to form a human shield, but the harpooners simply fired over their heads. Then came the defining moment of Watson’s life. He had told the story countless times but was still emotional telling it again: “They harpooned a female in the head. She screamed, and it’s a sound like a woman screaming, and then this huge male appeared and slapped his tail on the water and in revenge hurled himself at the Soviet ship. But they harpooned him, right between the eyes, and he fell back and swam right at us and reared up out of the water. We thought, “This is it, he’s going to slam down on us, it’s all over.” But he didn’t. He pulled back at the last moment and spared our lives, and as he slid back into the water we saw his eye, which was the size of a dinner plate, and in that whale’s eye I saw recognition, compassion, empathy, an understanding. Something passed between us and it changed my life for ever.”

“Being a scuba diver for the last 20 years and seeing the destruction of the marine habitat first hand has compelled me to act” said Steve. “I’ve been lucky enough to dive with Humpback whales – an incredible experience. I could not live with myself if I did not do something to prevent the slaughter of whales in the Southern Ocean sanctuary. These are endangered animals whose brains are bigger than ours, not just in size, but in proportion to bodyweight, who are known to be self-aware and experience suffering and grief.”

At the IWC this year, Greenland, with heavy backing from Denmark, asked permission to kill 50 endangered humpback whales over the next five years. A decision was postponed until the next meeting.

“The commission and its members should be ashamed of themselves, the IWC is nothing more than a junket for the delegates. Norway and Iceland, now joined by Greenland, want to hunt even more whales than the Japanese. Greenland now want to include endangered Humpbacks for their kill, it’s insane. The IWC should ban all whaling for any purpose, anything less is madness. I’m amazed that Norwegian and Icelandic whaling has not even been addressed at this year’s annual meeting of the IWC, but plenty of time was pointlessly spent debating and worrying about Sea Shepherd.
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