Sunday, January 15, 2012

The Whale Warriors

The Whale Warriors: On Board a Pirate Ship in the Battle to Save the World's Largest MammalsThe Whale Warriors: On Board a Pirate Ship in the Battle to Save the World's Largest Mammals by Peter Heller

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

As Japan is again continuing its whaling in the Antarctic waters against international law and the world's public opinion, this book describing the winter 2005-2006 campaign by Sea Shepherd is very timely. On January 9th this year, under the cover of darkness, three Australian Sea Shepherd activists managed to board the Japanese harpoon ship Shonan Maru No. 2 when it was just 26 km off the Australian west coast. The Japanese proceeded to arrest the environmentalists and took them to Tokyo, where a court released them without charges. The reason for the prompt release was probably that Japan does not want to draw undue attention to its controversial whaling activities.

Japan's insistence to go ahead with its extensive whaling is somewhat baffling. As Peter Heller demonstrates in his book, the government is forced to heavily subsidize the companies doing the whale hunt. There is very little demand for whale meat in Japan (only a tenth of the population confesses to ever eating it) and it has to be pushed on school lunch menus in some of the coastal areas with a high price to the tax payers. Tons of whale meat are piling up in freezers. Yet, more and more is brought in every year. Why? The officials cite traditional culture, but even that is a suspect argument. While some fishing communities, notably on the island of Shikoku, traditionally did hunt whales, this was limited to their coastal waters. Large scale commercial whaling only started when Japan built up its ocean going fleet after Commodore Perry's 'black ships' forced the opening of Japan to the outside world in 1854. The tradition certainly is not based in the ancient Japanese culture. The most likely explanation to the Japanese incalcitrance is nationalistic defiance against foreigners trying to tell them what to do. Sounds infantile? Well, it is, but it wouldn't be the first time.

Japan is a member of the International Whaling Commission (IWC), set up in 1946 "to provide for the proper conservation of whale stocks and thus make possible the orderly development of the whaling industry." IWC is thus not a conservation organization, but works for the long-term sustainability of the industry. So it can hardly be accused of sensationalizing the statistics. Yet, IWC recognizes that many whale species are endangered. On its website IWC acknowledges that many stocks of the thirteen species of 'great whales' have been depleted through over-exploitation. The authoritative Red List of endangered species compiled by the World Conservation Union identifies a number of whales as endangered. These include the Blue Whale, Fin Whale (Japan's self-set quota includes 50 Fin Whales per season), North Atlantic Right Whale and North Pacific Right Whale. In addition, a number of species are identified as threatened or vulnerable. Importantly, there is deficient data for most species to determine their status. Because of this state of affairs and the uncertainty about whale numbers, a moratorium on commercial whaling endorsed by IWC has been in place since 1986 (the UN Conference on Environment and Human Health originally proposed such a moratorium in 1972, but it was voted down by Japan, Russia, Iceland, Norway, South Africa and Panama).

As a response, Japan has circumvented the commercial whaling ban by claiming, quite disingenously, that its whaling program is for research purposes. This lethal research has been criticized by scientists and environmentalists alike. There are now non-lethal research methods that can be used to obtain the same data - and even if there were none, the large catch numbers could never be justified by the research argument. In IWC, a coalition led by by the USA, Canada, New Zealand and Australia has often challenged Japan for its "research" whaling. However, like in the UN, IWC operates on a one nation, one vote basis. Consequently, Japan has been able to purchase the votes of a number of tiny countries by providing them financial support. A number of Caribbean and Pacific Island countries - even the West Africa country of Togo - have voted in line with Japan in IWC following promises of official aid or even just covering travel and expenses of individual government officials. In all fairness, it must be said that there are also other countries that continue to kill whales, including Norway, Iceland, the Danish Faroe Islands and Russia.

When I was on the faculty of the UN University based in Tokyo in the early 1990s, I remember that we were approached by a consultant to the Japanese Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries who proposed to pay for a study that we would conduct to show that whales were not endangered. During the meeting the gentleman got somewhat carried away and outlined a vision how whales could be domesticated to produce meat and milk for the growing human population. He further accused Western "meat eaters" for an emotional reaction to whaling. When I politely explained that we would gladly consider undertaking such a study, but that we would have to be in control of the study, select the research design and researchers, and that there could be no preagreed conclusions, he got up and promised to get back to us. Needless to say, he never did.

Adventure writer Peter Heller joined Sea Shepherd's ship Farley Mowat on a two-month expedition to the Antarctic in the 2005-2006 season to intercept the Japanese fleet. In 'The Whale Warriors' he provides an interesting and quite balanced account of the challenging trip during which the mostly volunteer crew under the command of Sea Shepherd founder Capt. Paul Watson searches, chases and engages with the Japanese fleet in the Antarctic waters. The book is written in a generally lively manner following the format of Heller's log of the days and weeks at sea, interspersed with information about the history of whaling, the Japanese whaling industry, ecology, the organizations that work against whaling (including Sea Shepherd and Greenpeace), and the international politics surrounding the issues. The format works well overall, but because of the lengthy search for the Japanese whalers and Heller's faithful depiction of the tedium at sea, the book feels a bit long (it could easily have been 50 pages shorter, I think). Even if the author's descriptions of the weather, the sea, the penguins, albatrosses and other sea birds, the icebergs, are beautiful, they also become somewhat repetitive. Finally, it is only on page 215 when the Farley Mowat first finds the location of the Japanese factory boat Nishin Maru and things start speeding up.

In the meantime, we meet the dedicated environmentalists from many countries (USA, Canada, Holland, Sweden, Brazil, South Africa, Australia, France) that make up the crew. These women and men form an interesting bunch, by no means homogenous in their philosophy, but all committed to saving the large, peaceful and highly intelligent animals. Heller observers exchanges that highlight the tensions between unexpected groups, such as between vegans and vegetarians or between conservationists and animal rights activists. His observations are often quite revealing and at best very funny. When the small helicopter onboard returns from a surveillance flight and performs a delicate landing on the deck of the ship rolling in heavy waves, Heller sees how the deck crew took only seconds to secure the landed chopper to the deck. "Pretty good for vegans with advanced degrees," he quips (page 267).

The book also sheds light on the continued rift between Sea Shepherd and Greenpeace. Paul Watson was one of the founders of Greenpeace and served as its Director from 1972 to 1977 when he left to found Sea Shepherd. He was growing frustrated with what he considered ineffective methods of Greenpeace, believing in a need for more direct action. The quartermaster of Farley Mowat on this trip is Emily Hunter, daughter of the Greenpeace co-founder and first President, the late Robert Hunter. Greenpeace manages to locate the Nishin Maru much before Sea Shepherd, but refuses to release the coordinates. The schism appears to be mostly with the top of the organizations and individual crew members of the Greenpeace ship Esperanza leak updates to Watson. As Farley Mowat finally sails to engage with Nishin Maru, Esperanza crew cheer it on. The trouble with Greenpeace non-confrontational tactics is that they only look on and document as the Japanese proceed to slaughter the whales in the most brutal and inhumane manner imaginable.

Whether the Sea Shepherd's more direct approach is any more effective is the question. As the Nishin Maru and its harpoon boats see Farley Mowat approaching they escape, only to move to another location to continue their hunt. Both organizations clearly have done much to bring the vicious and criminal activity to the forefront and thus influencing world opinion.

Yet, politics is what it is. Most of Japan's whaling takes place in the areas designated as off limits under the international moratorium and much in the territorial waters of other countries. Heller points out that if the whaling fleets were from less powerful developing countries, countries like Australia would not hesitate to intercept and arrest them in their territorial waters. Indeed, even earlier this week the Australian prime minister Julia Gillard criticized the Sea Shepherd activists for boarding the Shonan Maru, which was engaged in illegal activities in Australian territorial waters.

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