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First published on Spectator.co.nz… Note to readers: the conclusion in this column is clearly open for debate... For alternative views that challenge this conclusion, click on the image.
Minke Sushi – Point of View with Barbara Sumner Burstyn
Some issues are so black and white they are never examined, let alone criticized. Like whaling. It’s obvious that every pro whaler is bad and all anti whalers are good. That’s why, when a guy like Paul Watson, the icon of anti-whalers weighs anchor in Auckland Harbour we welcome him unquestionably.
Watson who describes his conservation group, Sea Shepherd, as a self-appointed policing organization for whalekind is famous for his Robin Hood like tactics. To make sure whalers and any fisherman breaking Sea Shepherds rules get the message he sails up close, flouting international sailing conventions and declares them under arrest. When they ignore him he begins his campaign of harassment, including water cannons, firing gunpowder and his piece de resistance; the "can opener", a tool apparently capable of ripping open the steel hulls of ships, a technique that has often lead to boat sinkings and a number of close calls for sailors.
Excuse me, but am I missing something here? Here’s a known saboteur, a man the Norwegians call a terrorist and whose organization is said to have solid links to the frightening Animal Liberation Front (ALF) and whose activities come under the FBI’s Animal Enterprise Terrorism watch floating happily in Auckland Harbour.
As if that isn’t enough Watson has been branded a blatant racist by Native peoples across North America. Not only for his attempts to stop the legal capture of a Grey Whale by the Makah Indian tribe but for his writings, where, using discredited and racist anthropological models he argues racism is a mere ‘human triviality.’
Then there are the criminal convictions. Watson, who claims he speaks on behalf of the Cetacean nation, has served time in several foreign prisons. Holland sentenced him to 120 days of unconditional imprisonment for attempting to scuttle a whaling vessel in 1992. He’s been charged with criminal damages after steering another of his ships into a Coast Guard vessel in 1994, he’s been accused of transmitting false alarm signals and for illegal entry into Norwegian territorial waters. He’s had multiple arrests on criminal mischief charges and recently faced attempted murder charges and criminal charges for ramming a Costa Rican fishing boat.
With such a list of unlawful activity, the presence on board of a ‘powder’ used to fire his deck mounted canon, not to mention his tools designed to facilitate the sinking of another vessel, it seems remarkable that Auckland police have done no more than pay a cursory visit.
But, you reason, he is saving the whales. Well that may not be all it seems either.
At few decades ago Watson’s crusade did make sense. Commercial whaling had devastated many whale breeds, pushing some to the point of extinction. But today the U.S. National Marine Fisheries Service estimates there are more than two million sperm whales worldwide. The International Whaling Commission calculated years ago that there were more than 900,000 minke whales and 780,000 pilot whales worldwide, and the numbers are higher now. Milton Freeman, a whaling expert at the University of Alberta, estimates that the number of minke whales has trebled over 30 years and that humpbacks are exploding at a rate of 12 to 17 percent annually.
And the Makah hunt Watson tried to
shut down? That’s been a part of the culture for 2000
years. Deeply embedded in spiritual and cultural traditions
the Makah’s carefully managed hunt poses no threat
whatsoever to the conservation of the Pacific Gray whale as
their own rules forbid the killing of more than 20 whales
every five years (or an average of four whales a year) from
a stock estimated to be at around 20,000.
Writing recently in the New York Times Nicholas D. Kristof commented that while most large whales remain at risk, for some species we can no longer argue that we need to ‘save the whales.’ They've been saved. He adds that whales now eat at least 300 million tons of marine life, three times as much as humans and there’s speculation that rising numbers of minke whales may be holding down the population of blue whales that compete for similar food.
So is Paul Watson really the Robin Hood of conservation? I don’t think so.
Watson’s crusade is not about the protection of endangered species. It’s about one obsessive man with a cause. Certainly it’s a cause that wins the feel-good prize, but one that ultimately doesn’t stack up. And even if it did have merit beyond our romantic need to feel connected to another species, his actions are still criminal. Imagine if Watson were using New Zealand as his base for other terrorist activity, say blowing up buildings, would we have welcomed him to our shores? Under the spurious cover of animal rights we seem to have suspended our common sense and allowed this extremist to set up shop in Auckland Harbour trading his propaganda, touting for new recruits and planning his next attack.
So think about it. Does the end justify his means? And should those of us who, nonetheless support that end, ignore the means of a fanatic who believes animals have equal rights with humans and is willing to go to any lengths to promote his cause? Minke sushi anyone?
© Barbara Sumner Burstyn, August 2002