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Kelpie Wilson: Pirates Stick by Whales

Pirates Stick By Whales

By Kelpie Wilson
t r u t h o u t | Columnist

Sunday 28 January 2007

Every winter, the Japanese whaling fleet heads to the Southern Ocean surrounding Antarctica on a mission to kill a thousand whales. Ever since the International Whaling Commission (IWC) banned commercial whaling in 1986, Japan has used a curious rationale for its whaling. It does not kill a thousand whales for commercial purposes. It kills them for scientific research.

The major whaling nations, Japan, Iceland and Norway, have been persistent in their efforts to reinstate commercial whaling. They say that the IWC is supposed to be a marine resources management agency and that the stocks of certain whales, even endangered species like humpbacks and finned whales, have recovered enough to allow for regulated commercial whaling. At last summer's IWC meeting, Japan scored a symbolic victory by pressuring enough member nations to achieve a one-vote majority in favor of lifting the ban. However, the ban remains in place, because IWC rules require a supermajority to overturn it, and so Japan is back to hunting whales under the rubric of science.

As the Japanese whaling fleet combs the Southern Ocean, harvesting its self-imposed quota of 935 minke whales, 50 humpback whales and 10 finned whales, members of the Sea Shepherd Society are hunting the whalers, intent on intercepting the Japanese fleet and placing their own bodies between the harpoons and the victims, the sentient cetaceans.

I spoke with Captain Paul Watson by satellite phone this week about the Sea Shepherd's campaign. Watson is aboard the Robert Hunter, a fast-pursuit vessel that is one of two ships and a helicopter now deployed by the Sea Shepherd Society in the Southern Ocean.

Watson criticized Australia and other anti-whaling nations for not taking action against Japan. "Japan is killing whales in Australian territorial waters in violation of Australian law," Watson said. "It's ridiculous that Australia won't enforce the law against Japanese whalers. They don't hesitate to pursue Chilean fishers who poach toothfish in Australian waters." The bottom line, Watson says, is that Australia will enforce the law against a poor country like Chile, but Japan has too much economic clout.

I asked him what would happen if Australia did enforce the law against Japan. How would they do it? Would there be a violent confrontation? Watson's answer was, "All Australia has to do is send a couple of naval brigades to find the fleet and move them on their way. They have all the authority they need as an IWC signatory."

For that matter, according to Captain Paul Watson, the Sea Shepherd Society also has the legitimate authority to enforce international law. The UN World Charter for Nature allows both states and non-governmental organizations like Sea Shepherd to uphold international conservation laws.

But Japan questions the Sea Shepherd Society's legitimacy and calls them "eco-terrorists." Watson said that the Japanese game now is to lean on nations to revoke the registrations of the Sea Shepherd's ships. Canada pulled the registration for one of the ships, the Farley Mowat, back in October. On the paperwork, it said: "Reason given - None." Watson obtained a new registration for the ship in Belize, but Belize revoked its flag in late December, after the Farley Mowat had already put to sea. "That's illegal," said the Captain.

And so the Sea Shepherd is now operating a pirate vessel in the lonely Southern Ocean at the bottom of the world, which seems to have been the Japanese intention.

Japan Whaling Association president Keiichi Nakajima stated: "International law says any non-flagged vessel can be boarded for inspection, and in case of any violation or piracy, has to be detained, with its crew arrested. If Paul Watson continues with his violent campaign using this vessel, then he'll be risking everything."

Watson's response: "It amazes me that these outlaw whalers who are slaughtering endangered whales in a whale sanctuary have the audacity to call us pirates and to accuse us of violence when we have never caused an injury to any person, yet they spill thousands of gallons of whale blood into the frigid waters of the Southern Oceans each year."

I asked Paul Watson how he would respond if the Japanese attempt to board the Farley Mowat. "We have cannons," he said. "We'll defend ourselves. The cannons are loaded with pie filling, cream and chocolate. We will slime them and they won't be able to board." Watson said he is proud of his record in such confrontations. "In thirty years, we have never caused an injury to anyone."

The Sea Shepherd Society confronted Japanese whalers three times last year, Watson said, and every time, the whalers ran. "We ordered their supply vessel out of the whale sanctuary," he said, "and that really hurt them. But we couldn't keep up with them, so this year we have a faster boat, the Robert Hunter."

But even with the Robert Hunter, the Sea Shepherd Society may have a harder time catching the Japanese fleet this year. When I spoke to Captain Watson, the convoy was scouring the Ross Sea, 180 miles off the ice shelf. The two ships are sailing 80 miles apart, with the helicopter flying back and forth between them. Watson says that this year the Japanese whalers have invested in a satellite system that can track its pursuers. "They may be able to avoid us," he said. "By the way, they bought the software from Microsoft for $150,000."

It's easy to understand how frustrated Sea Shepherd Society members must feel. Some of the most magnificent, most endangered animals in the world are being slaughtered in cold blood while states like Australia that have the means to effectively intervene are standing aside.

For their part, the Japanese insist that eating whale meat is a traditional cultural practice and should be allowed to continue. It is true that the Japanese and many other cultures have eaten whale meat for thousands of years, but a practice that may have been sensible in the past when human populations were small, the oceans were healthy and teeming with life, and whale hunting technology was primitive, does not make sense today.

For one thing, whaling is not the only threat to the survival of the whales. Reduction of plankton populations in the Southern Ocean from ozone depletion and global warming threatens the whales' food source. Pollution and collisions with ships are other major hazards. The use of sonar by the US Navy and others has been shown to hurt whales, causing internal bleeding around the ears and brain, disorientation, mass strandings and death.

Many Japanese people are becoming aware of the new context for their tradition and are changing their minds about whale meat. In recent years, whale meat has grown so unpopular that the Japanese government has resorted to spending around $5 million a year on a promotional campaign to convince the younger generation that whale meat is good to eat. In some prefectures, whale has been added to school lunches in the hope that children will develop a taste for it. But the campaign is not really taking off. Greenpeace estimates that Japan has 4,400 tons of whale meat languishing unsold in freezers even as the whaling fleet heads out to slaughter a thousand more whales.

Japan's desperate campaign to keep whale on the menu makes even less sense in the context of new scientific discoveries about the sentience of whales. Scientists recently found that whales have specialized brain cells previously found only in humans and the great apes. Called spindle neurons, these brain cells are involved in processing emotions and social interactions. Patrick Hof, one of the researchers who made the discovery, said: "It's absolutely clear to me that these are extremely intelligent animals ... They communicate through huge song repertoires, recognise their own songs, and make up new ones. They also form coalitions to plan hunting strategies, teach these to younger individuals, and have evolved social networks similar to those of apes and humans."

The killing of great apes is almost universally condemned, and there is even an organization called the Great Ape Project that seeks to establish legal rights for our closest relatives. Taking this new information about whales seriously leads to the conclusion that a similar project to establish legal rights for whales is justified.

Whales today may be swimming in a legal vacuum, but the Sea Shepherd Society is more than willing to keep them company.

Upon learning that the Farley Mowat was now an unflagged, pirate vessel, Captain Watson said: "We have a mission, and that mission is to save whales. We will not surrender this ship to any navy and we will not comply with any order to cancel our campaign. If they want us to be pirates, then we will be damn pirates, but we will not abandon the whales to the agony and misery of the harpoons without a fight."


Kelpie Wilson is Truthout's environment editor. Trained as a mechanical engineer, she embarked on a career as a forest protection activist, then returned to engineering as a technical writer for the solar power industry. She is the author of Primal Tears, an eco-thriller about a hybrid human-bonobo girl. Greg Bear, author of Darwin's Radio, says: "Primal Tears is primal storytelling, thoughtful and passionate. Kelpie Wilson wonderfully expands our definitions of human and family."

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