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Sea Shepherd Takes Credit for Cutting Japan Whale Hunt in Half

Japan’s whaling ships have returned home from the Southern Ocean and are reporting the smallest take in years. Many, including the fleet’s leader, blame Sea Shepherd’s continual harassment for the deficit … which the Washington-state-based environmental group is happy to take credit for.
“We hit them long and hard this year and all our efforts and risks have paid off,” said Captain Paul Watson. “There are now 528 whales swimming freely in the Southern Ocean that would now be dead if not for the fact that we intervened. It is a happy day for my crew and I and conservationists worldwide, a happy day indeed.”
The take of both 507 was about half of last year’s hunt (935), the lowest numbers since the 2006-2007 season. The fleet’s leaders were said to be “furious” with Watson and his merry band, suggesting they would do anything – including leaving oil and boat parts behind in the Southern Ocean (a result of a collision between one of the Japanese whalers and Sea Shepherd’s high-end chase boat, the Ady Gil.

Coincidentally a decline in demand in Japan for whale meat has left the country with a nearly 5,000 ton surplus, which will be increased by the 1,800 tons brought home this season.
At the start of the season I talked with Watson about his hopes for the campaign.

Jon Bowermaster: Has your current campaign in the Southern Ocean been successful?

Captain Paul Watson: I believe it has been successful. Our strategy is an economic one. I don’t believe the Japanese whalers will back off on moral, ethical or scientific grounds but they will quit if they lose the one thing that is of most value to them – their profits. Our objective is to sink the Japanese whaling fleet – economically, to bankrupt them and we are doing that.

We have slashed their kill quotas in half over the last three years and negated their profits. They are tens of millions of dollars in debt on their repayment schedule for Japanese government subsidies. The newly elected Japanese government has pledged to cut their subsidies. I am actually confident that we can shut them down this year. They are on the ropes financially.

JB: How do you measure success? Fewer whales taken by Japanese? Other signs??

CPW: Of their quota of 935 Minke whales last year they fell short by 304. Of their quota of 50 Fin whales, they took only one. The year before they only took half their quota and in the last three years did not kill enough whales to break even so have been operating at a loss. We have also exposed their illegal whaling activities to the world and initiated a controversy and a discussion on whaling in the Japanese media.

JB: How do the Japanese continue to get away with the whale hunt when so many things say they shouldn’t, i.e. the Antarctica Treaty forbidding commerce below sixty degrees south latitude and the International Whaling Commission’s ban on all whaling?

CPW: There is a lack of economic and political motivation on the part of governments to enforce international conservation law. The Japanese whalers are targeting endangered and protected whales inside the boundaries of the Southern Ocean Whale Sanctuary in violation of a global moratorium on commercial whaling, in violation of the Antarctic Treaty that prohibits commercial activity south of sixty degrees and they are in contempt of the Australian Federal Court for continuing to kill whales in the Australian Antarctic Economic Exclusion Zone. There is no difference between Japanese whale poachers in Antarctica and elephant poachers in East Africa except that the Africans are black and impoverished.

JB: Do you know what the reaction among Japanese people – not scientists, not government – is towards the continued whale hunts?

CPW: I’m not actually concerned. I’m Canadian and the majority of Canadians are opposed to the commercial slaughter of seals but the Canadian government subsidizes it nonetheless. I believe it is a myth that once the people of a nation oppose something that things will change. First, most people are apathetic and could not care one way or another. Secondly, the pro-whalers have an economic motivation to lobby for continued whaling and thirdly in Japan it is considered inappropriate to oppose government or corporate policy. I’ve always felt that educating the Japanese public was a waste of time and smacks of cultural chauvinism. The fact is that whaling is illegal and we intervene for that reason and the key to ending it is the negation of profits.

Japanese Whalers 1, Sea Shepherd 0

Captain Paul Watson and his band of merry whale-hunters from Sea Shepherd took a big hit last week when their $2 million “attack” boat the Andy Gil was run over by a five-hundred-ton Japanese whaling ship. Video of the incident shows the Batmobile-like trimaran – made of carbon fiber and Kevlar, designed to pierce the rough seas of the Southern Ocean – baiting the bigger ship, being cascaded by fire hoses and then being landed on.

Its bow severely damaged, though none of its six-person crew seriously injured, the Shepherd’s main ship, the Bob Barker (the boats are named for their prime funders, in this case Gil – a Hollywood set designer – and Barker – longtime host of “The Price is Right”) attempted to tow it to a French science base on the Antarctic continent, but it sank along the way. Sea Shepherd assures that the seventy-foot boat had been drained of fuel and oil before it sank. The accident occurred about two hundred miles off the coast of Antarctica.

Sea Shepherd is on the Ross Sea harassing Japanese whalers for the fourth consecutive season; on board is a film crew from the Animal Planet show “Whale Wars” for which the accident should provide plenty of promo material for next season. Has the accident dissuaded the Japanese from continuing their questionable whale hunting? Not at all. In fact, they are suing Sea Shepherd for “piracy.”

Before the season began down south I talked with Paul about what he expected this year:

Has your current campaign in the Southern Ocean been successful?

Captain Paul Watson: I believe it has been successful. Our strategy is an economic one. I don’t believe the Japanese whalers will back off on moral, ethical or scientific grounds but they will quit if they lose the one thing that is of most value to them – their profits. Our objective is to sink the Japanese whaling fleet – economically, to bankrupt them and we are doing that.

We have slashed their kill quotas in half over the last three years and negated their profits. They are tens of millions of dollars in debt on their repayment schedule for Japanese government subsidies. The newly elected Japanese government has pledged to cut their subsidies.

I am actually confident that we can shut them down this year. They are on the ropes financially.

JB: How do you measure success? Fewer whales taken by Japanese? Other signs??

CPW: Of their quota of 935 Minke whales last year they fell short by 304. Of their quota of 50 Fin whales, they took only one. The year before they only took half their quota and in the last three years did not kill enough whales to break even so have been operating at a loss. We have also exposed their illegal whaling activities to the world and initiated a controversy and a discussion on whaling in the Japanese media.

JB: How do the Japanese continue to get away with the whale hunt when so many things say they shouldn’t, i.e. the Antarctica Treaty forbidding commerce below sixty degrees south latitude and the International Whaling Commission’s ban on all whaling?

CPW: There is a lack of economic and political motivation on the part of governments to enforce international conservation law. The Japanese whalers are targeting endangered and protected whales inside the boundaries of the Southern Ocean Whale Sanctuary in violation of a global moratorium on commercial whaling, in violation of the Antarctic Treaty that prohibits commercial activity south of sixty degrees and they are in contempt of the Australian Federal Court for continuing to kill whales in the Australian Antarctic Economic Exclusion Zone. There is no difference between Japanese whale poachers in Antarctica and elephant poachers in East Africa except that the Africans are black and impoverished.

JB: Do you know what the reaction among Japanese people – not scientists, not government – is towards the continued whale hunts?

CPW: I’m not actually concerned. I’m Canadian and the majority of Canadians are opposed to the commercial slaughter of seals but the Canadian government subsidizes it nonetheless. I believe it is a myth that once the people of a nation oppose something that things will change. First, most people are apathetic and could not care one way or another. Secondly, the pro-whalers have an economic motivation to lobby for continued whaling and thirdly in Japan it is considered inappropriate to oppose government or corporate policy. I’ve always felt that educating the Japanese public was a waste of time and smacks of cultural chauvinism. The fact is that whaling is illegal and we intervene for that reason and the key to ending it is the negation of profits.

The Lasciviousness of Life, Antarctic-Style, Day 2

My first footsteps on Terra Antarctic this season were taken on Barrientos, one of the tiny Aitcho islands, part of the South Shetlands, still one hundred miles off the continent. (It was just twenty miles from here, on King George Island, that we dropped – and then picked up – our kayaks two years ago.) Those first steps each austral summer are always fantastic, memorable, a reminder of why I keep coming back year after year. The sky this morning is grey-green, the sun striving hard to burn through; the smell of the penguin colonies as powerful as ever. A recent snowstorm had buried many of the penguin nests, which have now been mostly unburied by their inhabitants. While the South Shetlands are not the most prolific wildlife spots in Antarctica, within a ten-minute walk I see three species of penguin (Gentoo, Chinstrap and a stand-alone, way-out-of-his-way King) and three different kinds of seal (Weddell, Elephant and Leopard).

Bailey Head, Deception Island, Antarctica

Bailey Head, Deception Island, Antarctica

The tall King – visible from the shore standing on the crest of a small hill, silhouetted – stands out distinctly because he is literally five times the size of the other birds. What he is doing here is a mystery; at some point he obviously made a wrong turn somewhere because his home is most likely South Georgia, 660 miles to the east. Apparently he’s been here for a couple seasons, so though he looks out of place, towering above the other penguins, he’s obviously decided to stay put. There are rumors he may have tried to breed while here, though unsuccessfully.

The afternoon’s walk is at one of my favorite stops, Deception Island. Landing on the beach at Bailey Head, with its steep and fast fall-off, is always a challenge. The reward? Somewhere between 120,000-160,000 breeding Chinstraps (even the penguin experts among us have a hard time counting them all). Walk off the black sand beach, beneath a heavily snow-capped volcano, and a wide valley opens up exposing a mile-long line of marching penguins, three, four, five abreast, making their way back and forth from the sea and up a gently-sloping, five-hundred-foot tall hill. Those coming from the cold Southern Ocean, stomachs swollen from several hours of fishing, many can barely stand or waddle. Those heading the other direction, towards the sea, are easily identifiable by their filthy stomachs, streaked in mud and guano from a long day spent nurturing a pair of eggs (chicks are coming within the next couple weeks).

From a seat on a chunk of ice atop the hill I watch the comings and goings for an hour. Below, on either side of the steep hill, plays out the whole lasciviousness of life: Flirtation. Sex. Birth. Loving. Feuding. Friendship. Feeding. Youth. Middle age. Impairment. Death.

What surprises most on their first visit to a colony – after they get used to the guano-tinged smell that will linger in their nose hairs for a couple weeks, even after they’ve left Antarctica – is the reality that everything in a penguin’s life takes place in this one place. Especially real is the dying. Skeletal remains in every form litter the black sand, from seashore to the top of the hill. Black-and-white wings attached to a Skua-cleaned skeleton; a solitary, perfectly intact foot; blood-filled bodies, just beginning to be pecked by scavengers; long, thin vertebrae. Elegiac, each is both art and a reminder that life often ends not far from where it began.

By eight p.m. a warmish breeze has blown up, the sun come … and gone, now hidden by clouds. In this season of course, it never gets completely dark – sunrise tomorrow is expected at 02:33.

Bailey Head, Deception Island, Antarctica

Bailey Head, Deception Island, Antarctica

Someone emailed a very good question the other day, regarding my own carbon footprint, especially when traveling to such remote places as Antarctica. It’s both a legitimate question and one we should all ponder.

I’ve tried to work out my own carbon footprint online a couple times in the past, but as soon as I start to respond to Question 2 – “How often do you fly?” – the computer starts blinking red and smoking. Flying is a sizable contributor to CO2 in the atmosphere; I do it constantly and around the world. My only rationale is that by bringing back-stories from the places I fly to, and sharing them — especially with classrooms – I’m a bit absolved, though not completely. An option would be to stay home; I guess … one I will continue to ponder.

I traveled a couple years ago in the high Arctic with Richard Branson, who – as an airline company owner – knows a few things about the environmental impact of flying. His company, he explained, was experimenting with less-polluting fuels. As for his own personal carbon footprint, when it came to all the flying he does he rationalized … as all of us frequent fliers do. He was off the next month, for example, to South Africa, to meet with Jimmy Carter, Desmond Tutu and another nine peacemakers. “We could all walk there, I guess,” he said. “But I don’t think we’d get much accomplished. It doesn’t mean we don’t think about, or realize, the environmental impact of our actions.”

I’m out of the loop news-wise; has anyone published a story about the carbon contributions of the thousands who have gathered for eleven days in Copenhagen to debate the future of climate change?

Fishing in Antarctica

During the past decade I’ve spent a fair amount of time walking on, kayaking past, meeting new people on and sleeping along the world’s coastlines. A constant theme among the people met during the course of those travels has been the growing problem of over fishing around the globe. Virtually everywhere we’ve gone – from Chile to Gabon, Croatia to Tasmania – the question of how to rein-in the pressure man is putting on the world’s fisheries is raised, thanks to an increased appetite for fish and the unfortunate waste involved in most industrial fishing.

Pack Ice, east of Crystal Sound

Pack Ice, east of Crystal Sound

Statistics are scary: Fifty-two of the world’s fisheries are fully exploited. Seven of the ten top fisheries on the planet – accounting for thirty percent of all caught fish – are fully exploited. As many as ninety percent of the ocean’s large fish have been fished out. Unless the current situation improves, stocks of all species currently fished for food are predicted to collapse by 2048.

What does this have to do with Antarctica? This morning I asked my friend, U.K. field biologist Richard White, what kind of fishing goes on in the Southern Ocean? He’s worked previously as an observer on fishing boats, including stints monitoring the sea around South Georgia Island. Truth is there isn’t much pressure on the Southern Ocean simply because there aren’t that many fish. The Patagonian Toothfish (known more politely around the globe as Chilean Sea Bass) is quite popular and at risk of being over fished, but doesn’t range quite this far south. The only evidence he’d seen of poaching down here was for krill, apparently made into a paste for Asian markets. Otherwise you don’t see sight of fishing boats down here, legal or illegal. (The whaling still taking place each summer season by the Japanese, which hunt four hundred minke whales each year for “science,” is on the opposite side of the continent from where we are.)

My questions for Richard followed a sighting we had earlier this morning. Studying the pack ice just off the continent, something jumped out at us. In my experience along the Peninsula, it’s rare to find any sign of man afloat on the sea here. But this morning, under a bright, glaring sun, we spied in the near-distance something orange sticking out of the frozen pack. Mystified at first, we looked again through binoculars.

A fishing buoy froze into the ice. It was the second Richard had seen this year; on top of the two he remembers seeing last summer season, suggesting that currents are starting to carry some of the ocean’s floating detritus closer and closer to Antarctica pristine coastline.

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