This is a sobering book. The devastation wrecked on the world’s fisheries is extraordinary. 90% of the predatory fish, so essential to a healthy ecosystem, have been destroyed or fished out since 1950. Traditional food fish have all but disappeared. If we had any sense, we’d stop eating fish immediately. So what to do. Paul Watson says, save the whales.
The modern method of killing whales is barbaric and should be stopped. How that should be accomplished is partly the subject of this book. Technically, the Japanese are hunting whales legally by taking advantage of a loophole in the international treaty that permits killing whales for “research,” even if the result of that research winds up on the dinner tables in Japan (I did not know that the U.S. encouraged the consumption of whale meat after WW II, something that had not been cultural, to prevent starvation. Whale meat now brings in about $1 million in revenue per whale from the sale of meat. In fact, whale meat is declining as a food source and is now having to be frozen and stored because they can't sell enough.) Greenpeace and Watson, one of its original founders have fallen out over the tactics used by Sea Shepherd.org. As an aside, it should be noted that the FBI in June 2004 declared ecoterrorism to be a bigger threat to domestic security than Al Qaeda. The rumor that the Sea Shepherd society had been named an ecoterrorist group is bogus.
The quixotic nature of the Sea Shepherd campaign is obvious from the moment Peter Heller (correspondent for National Geographic) steps aboard the Farley Mowat for a month-long trip to the southern oceans in hopes of finding the whaling fleet. The southern ocean is a huge place roughly the size of all the western states from Mexico to Canada and east to a vertical line drawn north and south parallel to the Colorado eastern border. So for the ancient Farley Mowat to search for the Japanese whalers is like leaving Denver in an old pickup truck to try to find four other vehicles in the western states but not knowing where they might be.
The crew are certainly dedicated, if inexperienced and ill-trained: half had never been to sea, the helicopter pilot had never flow the particular type of helicopter they needed to rely on, they had no helicopter mechanic on board, the assumption seemed to be good intentions substitutes for competence. The ship was registered as a yacht so they could avoid paying higher fees and more importantly did not need to have licenses for the officers. To give you an idea. On their first stop at Hobart they anchor (mistakenly dropping both instead of one); after being cleared by customs they take two zodiacs in, one gets loaded to the gills with liquor and swamps on the way back so they begin throwing the liquor boxes overboard, on the other a crew member drops a VHF radio over the side (that represented ⅓ of their handheld radio communications.) In the meantime two jet-ski drivers took their craft for a spin around the ship, showboating, if you will, one flips and the engine is ruined. There goes half of their small-craft-for-running-around-the-whale-ships-boats. The captain is in the radio room preparing PR. Is he concerned by the flubs. Not a bit. Apparently, it was common practice for Greenpeace ships to take out whatever wharf they intended to tie up to. Heller inspects the safety gear and decides to buy his own. This to venture into some of the most dangerous waters on earth.
Their mission is to aggressively interfere with whaling wherever possible, even if it means sinking ships (they claim credit for having sunk fifteen, most relating to Arctic whaling that was clearly illegal.) Sectarian disputes are common. You have freegans, vegans and vegetarians all thrown in together; the use of honey by one could bring on an active donnybrook. One thing most could agree on was that humans are evil and the world would be better off without them.
It should be noted that of the 44 people on board for the trip Heller documents, 7 were journalists and videographers. Media coverage is absolutely crucial to the campaign. They had no direct responsibilities in operating the ship and answered to no one although they were expected to follow whatever rules Watson dictated on any given day. Paul Watson makes no apologies for manipulating the media, arguing that’s the only way to get the message across. No doubt he’s correct and Whale Wars, the TV show furthers that goal. I am through #5 of Season 3 and so enjoying the amateur antics and buffoonery of these well-meaning folks. Hysterical. Bunch of rank amateurs (but very committed) running around pretending to be doing something useful. The captain of the Bob Barker, barely refitted, no sea trials after engine rebuild, 60 yrs old, having engine trouble, steers right into the middle of a terrific storm, putting his ship, the mission, and the crew at terrible risk (his first time as ship captain, he only managed yachts before) and justifying it by saying if they can save 10 hrs they can save some whales, but there's no guarantee Watson's plan for two ships will work at all. What a bunch of yahoos. And Watson as a captain? He stands around clueless most of the time. Any captain worth his salt would have had the crew practicing launching the zephyrs over and over until they could do it in their sleep. Instead, they wait until they are confronted with the Japanese ship for what appears to be a first-time effort. Ridiculous. Shame, because the whaling should stop. But these guys are a joke. Fun to watch, though.
The question of what to do remains. It’s all well and good to tell those who’s livelihood depends on some activity to stop doing it when it hurts the requester not at all. We have to figure out a way to put teeth into international treaties (I’d say use the money spent on the Sea Shepherd activities to bribe (oh, I’m sorry, I meant to say campaign contributions) legislators. But at the same time, help those affected find alternative and profitable ways to make a good living. Any pain that results has to be shared.
I was struck by the most treasured item on the Farley Mowat, a huge wide-screen TV and a substantial collection of videos and DVDs. Cell phones and high-end electronics are ubiquitous. The production of computers and wide-screen TVs is perhaps just as destructive -- if not more-- to the environment and many people, as killing whales. Watson’s stateroom is larger than the bridge and was remodeled at a cost of $75,000 -- donated, but perhaps money could be better spent. Finding a balance in a tightly-coupled world will be your generation’s challenge.
Humans are very efficient killers, of each other, and of other species. The lesson of this book might also be that the best thing for the earth would be human extinction.
Peter Heller has written a fascinating, sympathetic, yet not uncritical (he was dismayed when he discovered a .50 caliber sniper rifle and shotguns on board) book about the Sea Shepherd group. This is peripherally also a study of the true believer and how assumptions dictate their actions. Those "facts" or "events" that don't meet their assumptions are discarded. I am a fan of whales. I am not a fan of Paul Watson, but if one of the goals was to get you to think twice before eating, Heller succeeded.
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