“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.” (Paul Watson, Sea Shepherd Conservation Society)
Last Wednesday (1/6/10), a Sea Shepherd Conservation Society boat (the Ady Gil) was apparently rammed and sunk by a Japanese whaling ship off Antarctica. Japan’s Institute of Cetacean Research, which oversees the whaling fleet, claims that the Ady Gil had fired butyric acid onto another Japanese ship earlier in the day and was attempting to lasso the Shonan Maru’s rudder at the time of the collision. This is the latest battle in an annual war stretching back some 30 years.
Paul Watson, Sea Shepherd’s founder (1977) and leader, is a polarizing figure: intelligent (and arrogant), selfless (and egotistical), loved (and reviled). A charter member of Greenpeace, Watson was expelled for being too independent and confrontational (he maintains a thinly-veiled antipathy towards Greenpeace, arguing that picketing is too soft). He is, admittedly, prone to hyperbole (believing it necessary in today’s world), but Sea Shepherd’s influence is indisputable (claiming to have sunk 10 whaling ships and impeding many others, they regularly send Japanese whalers home short of quotas). Flying under the Jolly Roger, Watson considers his mostly-volunteer group (who must be prepared to die for the cause) modern-day pirates. (see this fascinating profile in The New Yorker)
The slaughtering of whales for meat and oil dates back centuries. But as populations were decimated to extinction-risk levels in the 20th Century, the International Whaling Commission (IWC) was formed to strike a balance between commerce and conservation. In 1986, they implemented an indefinite ban on all commercial whaling to allow for stock replenishment. There were (are) holdouts (and exceptions are made for indigenous groups). Norway objected immediately and remains the second largest whaler. But Japan, by far, is the world’s leading whale-slaughterer (roughly 1,000 per year). They claim a scientific research exemption (conspicuously painting “RESEARCH” on their ships) and believe culling is sometimes necessary to protect other valuable marine assets. Yet, very little scientific data has been published, and whale meat is common in Japanese grocery stores and restaurants (the whalers maintain that the IWC obligates them not to waste the scientific byproduct).
Because the IWC holds no enforcement powers (and with navies reluctant to engage foreign ships), Watson feels he is simply filling a void. In an interview with CBC radio, he said, “…the United Nations World Charter for Nature allows for us to do that [resolution here]. It says that any nongovernmental organization, or individual, is empowered to uphold international conservation law. That’s why…I’m not in jail.” But Watson practically dares Japan to put him on trial (a potential forum for the dynamic activist).
For Watson, the deep bond with whales and their suffering was cemented in a 1975 Greenpeace confrontation with a Soviet whaler: (Telegraph, 4/17/09) “They harpooned a female in the head. She screamed, and it’s a sound like a woman screaming, and then this huge male slapped his tail on the water and hurled himself at the Soviet ship. They harpooned him 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.”
Whales, like elephants, are majestic creatures who have been revered and abused through the centuries. Their uncommon intelligence makes the gruesome harpoon hunts all the more egregious. Ageless wonders (with some living beyond a century), whales possess numerous human-like qualities: self-awareness, tool use, social cooperation, complex vocalizations (evidence of specialized neurons associated with language), grief, and fascinating social interactions (perhaps the capacity for forgiveness) with humans. Dr. Toni Frohoff, a behavioral and wildlife biologist, says: (NY Times Magazine, Watching Whales Watching Us) “I mean, I’d put my career on the line and challenge anybody to say that these whales are not actively soliciting and engaging in a form of communication with humans, both through eye contact and tactile interaction and perhaps acoustically in ways that we have not yet determined. I find the reality of it far more enthralling than all our past whale mythology.” And: “I don’t anthropomorphize. What I do is study gray whales using the same rigorous methodologies that have long been used to study the behaviors of other species and interspecies interaction. Those who would reject out of hand the idea that whales are intelligent enough to consciously interact with us haven’t spent enough time around whales.”
In 2005, off the California coast, a Humpback was ensnared in a crab-trap line that threatened to drown her. James Moskito, one of the rescue divers who worked for an hour to free her, said, “When I was cutting the line going through the mouth, its eye was there winking at me, watching me. It was an epic moment of my life.” Once released, the whale swam in circles and seemed to personally thank each of the divers with friendly nudges. Moskito: “It seemed kind of affectionate, like a dog that’s happy to see you. I never felt threatened. It was an amazing, unbelievable experience.” In return, we allow other human beings to do this: