If Japanese whalers had a sense of humor, their ships headed into the Southern Ocean next month would loudly blare Tom Petty’s “I Won’t Back Down.”
Photo: Ho New/Reuters
Why? Because the country’s Fisheries Ministry—rather than back down after Sea Shepherd successfully harassed them into quitting this past whaling season—has announced it will more than double its budget to protect its ships from protesters.
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The most high-profile and effective of those protesters, Captain Paul Watson of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, has vowed to fight to the death.
Fisheries Minister Michihiko Kano rationalized the increase in expenditure because the country “aims to restart commercial whaling in the future and the nation needs to continue research whaling to achieve that.” Last year, Japan’s whaling fleet sailed home early, fatigued by the Shepherd’s nonstop campaign; this year the Japanese government will spend in the neighborhood of $10 million to provide an escort boat to accompany the fleet—a first. Somewhat mysteriously, the government has also said it would use “other measures” to protect its fleet. “We intend to carry out the research after enhancing measures to assure that it is not obstructed,” Kano said.
Limited to less than 200 whales last year—off its stated goal of 1,000—the Fisheries Ministry says this year it has the same goal and intends to be successful.
Leaders from Japan’s neighbors, particularly New Zealand and Australia, condemned the decision to continue evading the 1986 international ban on whaling. Australia has filed an official complaint in the world court in Hague to try to get Japan’s “scientific” whaling stopped, but in a sadly typical example of bureaucratic malaise, a decision is not expected until sometime in 2013.
“Limited to less than 200 whales last year—off its stated goal of 1,000—the Fisheries Ministry says this year it has the same goal and intends to be successful.”
New Zealand’s Foreign Affairs Minister Murray McCully said Japan was “isolating itself from the international community” by deciding to resume whaling. Australians, led by Environment Minister Tony Burke, are leading the criticism since during the upcoming whaling season, the Japanese are expected to be doing their “science” in an area of the Southern Ocean declared an Australian whale sanctuary.
“There is no justification for continued whaling,” Burke told The Age. “They should not be sending their fleet to the Southern Ocean. We don’t accept that this is scientific. It should not go ahead.”
For its part, Sea Shepherd is planning on sending three ships to the Southern Ocean in November, with the intention of ending Japan’s whaling season early, one more time.
At its website, on the eve of its eighth season harassing Japanese whalers in the Southern Ocean, Paul Watson issued one of his strongest threats against the whalers yet: “They will have to kill us to prevent us from intervening…”
“It now seems they are simply obsessed with killing whales not for need, and not for profit, but because they believe they have the right to do what they wish.”
Tuna of all stripes seem deserving of a sizable break today.
Google bluefin, yellowfin, bigeye or albacore and nearly every reference links to some report or international agency, governmental body or scientific group insisting—loudly—that if we don’t seriously back off fishing tuna right away, many of its species will soon be gone.
Photo: Ho New/Reuters
Even the pirates of the environmental movement, Sea Shepherd—who has proven so successful in changing the way much of the world views whale hunting in the 21st century—has run into brick walls in its efforts to ride to the rescue of the last wild tuna.
In one of the big bluefin battlegrounds of the summer—the Mediterranean Sea, off the coast of Libya—Sea Shepherd’s goal of shutting down the fishery there has been stalled after its lead ship, the Steve Irwin, was caught up in a lawsuit filed by a Maltese tuna company and detained.
The Steve Irwin sailed into Libyan waters in June to try and stop anyone from taking bluefin. Dubbed “Operation Blue Rage,” the campaign figured that a country roiled in civil war wouldn’t be paying much attention to illegal fishing off its coastline. Which was true. One of the group’s tactics was literally ramming open-water pens holding bluefin and freeing them. Unfortunately, the Maltese-based company Fish and Fish Ltd. claimed it had rights to be fishing there last summer (2010), granted by Libya’s Rural Affairs Ministry, and is suing Sea Shepherd for damages, claiming a ramming of its pens caused 600 big fish, valued at more than $1 million, to swim into the wild. The ship is being held until a $1.4 million bond is posted.
The group’s website says it is “not particularly worried” about the suit and claims its actions were taken against an “illegal fishing operation.” But the threat that the boat may be held indefinitely is real.
“Let’s not forget that lawsuits can be filed for many reasons,” the site continues, “This may have happened for financial redress, or simply because Sea Shepherd has had serious success exposing the illegalities of operations profiting from the destruction of bluefin tuna and they want to interfere with their activities.” The EU has not been completely supportive of the group, with a spokesman announcing that “no one else” can carry out “inspections.”
Meanwhile, the Swiss-based Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN)—the top dog when it comes to attempting to protect endangered wildlife and plant life—has recently added five of eight tuna species to its Red List of Threatened Species. The timing of this announcement was linked to a meeting in La Jolla, California, of the world’s five regional fisheries management organizations, intergovernmental groups set up to try and make sure tuna fisheries remain sustainable.
The IUCN’s official predictions were expectedly grim: Southern bluefin stocks have crashed with little hope of recovery, gaining it a “critically endangered” listing. Atlantic bluefin is now officially “endangered.” With high-tech factory ships continuing to hammer bigeye (“vulnerable”) and yellowfin and albacore (“near threatened”) it would appear the only way to save tuna, according to the IUCN, is to close all fisheries until stocks are rebuilt.
But if you pay close attention to the dire pronouncements, which legitimately attempt to steer citizens and consumers in the right direction, it becomes clear that no amount of dire warnings and listings seem to be making much of a difference.
How much tuna do you guess is caught worldwide each year? Somewhere close to 4.5 million tons. The most prolific take is skipjack, which some call the rabbits of the sea, which accounts for 60 percent of the total tuna take and mostly goes into the tins found on supermarket shelves. The different varieties of bluefin—once so abundant along the coast of the U.S. that it was sold for a nickel a pound for cat food, but is now so highly prized by sushi and sashimi lovers that it can sell for $1,000 a kilo—makes up less than one percent of the global tuna haul.
One thing making all the listings and warnings frustrating is the inability of fishermen around the globe to agree to leave it be. In Canada, for example, top wildlife advisers (the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada) say bluefin on both Atlantic and Pacific coasts should be listed as endangered. But at the same time the country’s Department of Fisheries and Oceans proclaims its bluefin fishery is the best managed in the world and should be left alone. (Last year 5,000 tons of bluefin were caught in Canadian waters). Like so many environmental debates, it’s often hard to know which statistic or professional opinion to trust.
The debates may rage, but Sea Shepherd remains fearless in its rescue mission. While the bluefin-saving ship is held at dock in Lybia, the group has recently dispatched another one of its ships, the Brigitte Bardot, to the Faroe Islands (Operation Ferocious Isles) to protect and draw attention to the risks facing pilot whales.
(For the rest of my dispatches, go to takepart.com
The question arises with more and more frequency these days: To sushi, or not to sushi?
Photo: Stone/Getty Images
There is a growing contingent of conscientious mariners out there who refuse to eat all seafood, arguing that sea life has been so injudiciously hammered in the past five decades that if it’s going to survive, we need to give it a true break. That path, of course, puts at risk the livelihoods of 30 million-plus global fishermen and the related industry they support.
Others, attempting to choose wisely, try to navigate by choosing so-called sustainable seafood, which leads them away from the big-name predators (tuna, salmon, swordfish, mahi-mahi) towards smaller, less-popular thus still prolific species.
But in the booming sushi trade, opting for that admittedly delicious tuna and other at-risk fish can prompt lively pre-dinner brawls, even among the most enlightened carrying smart phones armed with apps to help steer them towards the “safest” fish on the menu.
With bluefin season heating up in the Mediterranean, the question is even more relevant. Two weeks ago Sea Shepherd’s “Operation Blue Rage” sent two of its boats, the Steve Irwin and Brigitte Bardot, to the coast of Libya to help monitor the waters and take direct action if it observes illegal tuna-ing.
“Any tuna fishing vessel we find off the Libyan coast will be operating illegally,” said Sea Shepherd’s boss, Paul Watson, as his boats steamed away from the coast of France toward Libya. “We will cut their nets, free the fish, and document and report their operations to ICCAT and the European Union.”
A decade ago it became clear that bluefin would soon be extinct if the hunting continued apace, and little has been done to slow the take, even as the popularity of the species booms in sushi restaurants around the globe, from Stillwater to Moscow (and particularly in Japan, which is said to consume 80 percent of the planet’s bluefin). Some marine protectors stick with the prediction that bluefin will be commercially unavailable by 2012…next year!
A small and hopefully growing number of chefs and restaurants have taken bluefin off the menus. At the same time, necessary further protection for the species continues to erode. In May the Obama administration refused to list it as endangered, which conservationists were calling for; late last year European quotas for tuna were reduced, though by just a few tons, even as worries that any decrease in legal takings would result in a rise in illegal fishing.
New York Times food critic Sam Sifton got into the middle of the debate a couple days ago when reviewing the New York City restaurant Masa Masa, which he revealed serves “an enormous amount” of bluefin, and which he admitted to happily sampling during several visits.
So back to the question: To sushi or not to sushi?
Casson Trenor’s book (Sustainable Sushi: A Guide to Saving the Oceans One Bite at a Time) and website (sustainablesushi.net) may be the best place to start building your argument. He operates San Francisco’s only sustainable sushi restaurant, Tataki, and recently hosted a sustainable seafood feast at the National Geographic Society in D.C.
On his recent birthday (32) he blogged: “I talk a lot about moderation on this blog—staying away from critically endangered delicacies like bluefin tuna, not eating sushi four times a week, and all that—and I stand by it. But there’s a time and a place for celebration, and that’s important too. Not that I would eat bluefin tuna even for a holiday banquet, but I just might gorge myself a little bit (or a lot) on some sort of sustainable delight and fall asleep on the couch. My birthday is not a good day to be a crawfish, believe me.”
- Photo: Stone/Getty Images
I think what we’re seeing is the emergence of a list of “good sushi” and “bad sushi.” Or should we simply put it all off limits…for now? Where do you fall?
Sifton’s review elicited a slew of responses. A majority, but not all, sided with the fish. Others suggested that if you don’t like what’s on the menu, vote by not walking through the door. Have a look for yourself, and weigh in here.
(For the rest of my dispatches, go to takepart.com)
n a characteristic move last week, the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society took its ship the Steve Irwin—proudly waving its skull-and-crossbones pirate flag—straight into the heart of real pirate waters.
Photo: STR New/Reuters
While conservation groups regard the Shepherds as rebels and outsiders, going to extremist lengths, happy to obstruct and lob stink bombs onto predator vessels to protect whales, dolphins, baby seals, tuna and more … to-date, the organization has not actually engaged in real piracy, i.e. boat-seizing, hostage-taking and gunfire.
But last week, the usually all-black Steve Irwin was painted in green camo, with a giant “77” on its bow—representing 1977, the year the organization was founded
“We looked like a Navy ship,” spokeswoman Tiffany Humphrey tells me. In its naval disguise, the Shepherd boat crossed the northern Indian Ocean, transited the Gulf of Aden and sailed into the Red Sea, through waters Somali pirates have turned into “the most dangerous” on the planet.
“A few [real] pirates came and looked,” says Humphrey. Apparently, the “official” look of the environmentalist’s boat gave the marauders pause. Three separate skiffs with a half-dozen men in each approached the ship, tailed it for a few miles, but kept a distance. As well as the new paint job, the ship was ringed with barbed wire and 4-foot steel spikes. The on-watch crew manned water cannons and “imitation” weapons.
The ship’s new look apparently confused some real navies as well. A U.S. Blackhawk helicopter buzzed the ship, thinking it to be a Dutch warship.
Humphrey reports that the camo look will stick during the ship’s upcoming season in the Mediterranean Sea (dubbed “Operation Blue Rage II”). Starting on June 1, Operation Blue Rage II will attempt to stop bluefin tuna catching off the coast of Libya. “It’s too hot in the Med for our usual black,” says Humphrey.
In related news, the Shepherd’s website suggests that Japanese whalers may not return to the Southern Ocean for their annual hunt (November to March) due to loss of government funding.
In large part due to the ballooning costs of the earthquake/tsunami/nuclear leakage, the government in Tokyo has announced massive budget cuts, including “child support, senior citizen support and pensions, and infrastructure repairs and maintenance.”
But the non-profit Sea Shepherds insist that if whalers do return to Antarctica next November, interceptor boats will be there waiting.
“There have been a few critics who have been advising us to lay off Japan because of the recent disasters,” reports the Shepherd website. “The point is that Sea Shepherd interventions are not targeting the Japanese people. We are addressing unlawful activities—whale poachers in an area far from Japan, the Southern Ocean Whale Sanctuary, where whales are supposedly protected by law.”
(For the rest of my dispatch, go to takepart.com
In an bitter twist of fate, Japan’s tsunami may have accomplished something conservationists have been fervently attempting for years: Driving a final nail into the nation’s pro-active whaling communities.
The first outsiders have recently reached the small town of Ayukawahama, which was crushed by 30-foot waves. Four hundred of its 1,400 residents are missing, assumed dead. The peninsula town is described as having been reduced to “an expanse of splintered wood and twisted cars.”
The waves rushed 600 feet inland, wiping out 80 percent of the town’s 700 homes, along with the headquarters of the biggest business in town, Ayukawa Whaling, one of the country’s most prodigious hunters of big whales.
Ayukawa lives off whaling. It is one of just four Japan communities that are home to small fleets that twice a year hunt whales in waters close to Japan, differentiating them from the fleet that heads to the Southern Ocean each November.
“There is no Ayukawa without whaling,” said a 27-year-old whaler.
(For the rest of my dispatch go to takepart.com)
As Sea Shepherd predicted, when two of its boats made port in Hobart, Tasmania, over the weekend – on the heels of a just-completed and successful campaign against Japanese whalers – Australian police greeted them.
Armed with search warrants both the “Bob Barker” and “Steve Irwin” were scoured by the police with Sea Shepherd boss Paul Watson observing. No charges were made, nothing confiscated. Yet the search went on, spurred by complaints by the Japanese government that the Shepherd’s activities in the Southern Ocean were “obstructing commerce and industry.”
Japan Foreign Minister Seiji Maehara had asked New Zealand and the Netherlands, as well as Australia, to condemn the anti-whalers, since the Shepherd’s ships are registered in those countries. It claims the Shepherd’s put the lives of Japanese crewmen at risk.
Australia’s Green party leader, Sen. Bob Brown, was at the docks to welcome the Sea Shepherd activists and told the press: “The good police (of Australia) are doing the work of Tokyo…I have written to the Minister for Foreign Affairs this morning calling for an end to this charade.”
Watson said this was the third year in a row his ships have been searched when they’ve first made port. “All I can say to the Japanese who every year say ‘you guys are eco-terrorists, you’re criminals’ is ‘look, arrest me or shut up.’ It’s just getting really irritating constantly being called an eco-terrorist without actually being arrested.”
While the Japanese did quit the whaling season early, it’s no guarantee they are giving up, despite that the Shepherds’ formally announced that this past season’s “Operation No Compromise” is finished.
They will most likely return to the Southern Ocean next year and in the meantime – since they took fewer than 100 whales this season, hardly the 900 they anticipated – it is possible they may turn to hunting whales closer to home, in the northwest of the Pacific Ocean.
For its part, Sea Shepherd says it will be back down south next season if necessary. “We will be prepared and we will be ready,” Watson said in a statement posted on his website. “Our objective is to defend the integrity of the Southern Ocean Whale Sanctuary. We have done so since 2002, and we will continue to do so if there are any future threats to the sanctuary and the whales.”
In more Antarctic-related police news, Norwegian skipper Jarle Andhoy, whose ship the “Berserk” sank off the coast on February 20 with three crewmembers onboard while he and another man attempted a misguided and secretive effort to reach the South Pole by ATV, has been charged back home with negligence.