Shipboard with the Sea Shepherds
From ANIMAL PEOPLE, September 1997:
News traveled chiefly by ship for thousands of years. The first newscasters were
literally anchormen, who shouted the latest word of current events to the crowds who gathered
at dockside whenever a ship came in. After printing was invented, early newspapers
published not the news itself but rather lists of ships arrived and departing, with their recent
and future ports of call, so that to find out what was happening in China, one could find
the crew of the latest arrived China clipper.
The news was still traveling by ship on August 3, a sunny Sunday we spent on
Puget Sound with Captain Paul Watson and the crew of the Sea Shepherd Conservation
Society vessel The Sirenian. We met them at Eastsound, the main village on Orcas Island,
where they relaxed in the shade of an old church, and sailed with them to Friday Harbor,
on San Juan Island, where Watson had a Monday night speaking engagement.
They hadn’t anticipated the down time. They broke off an anti-whaling vigil at
Neah Bay, home of the Makah tribe, 24 hours before they otherwise would have, to
appear in Eastsound by request of filmmaker Richard Donner at the Orcas Island premier of
Free Willy III––a benefit for the building fund of the local humane society. Watson was to
speak briefly, preceding the premier. The day before, though, when Sea Shepherd international
director Lisa Distefano called to confirm the time of the premier, one of the
humane society officers warned her to keep the focus on dogs and cats.
“She told me, ‘This isn’t about whaling,’” Distefano reported. “I told her we
wouldn’t do any fundraising. We were coming, at our own expense, because Richard
Donner asked Paul to attend, to talk about whales and whaling.”
On arrival, the Sea Shepherds learned the premier had either been moved ahead
two hours, or they got the time wrong. It was ending as they came ashore. Donner himself
hadn’t even attended.
There was nothing to do but pass out literature, sign a few autographs, and try to
educate anyone who hung around to chat. Watson repeatedly described how his crew had
videotaped semi-resident grey whales swimming as close as five feet from shore at a part of
the Makah reservation where cliffs drop sharply into the sea. The Makah plan to hunt
whales next spring, exercising a claimed aboriginal treaty right for the first time in 75
years––and while Makah leaders would like the public to believe they will kill as many as
15 whales by traditional means, the Sea Shepherds have learned otherwise. The Makah
Tribal Whaling Commission recently bought from four to seven .50-caliber machine guns,
similar to the one the Canadian Department of Fisheries mounted at Seymour Narrows in
1960 to shoot any orcas who competed with humans to catch fish.
“These are the weapons normally mounted on military assault helicopters and
Navy gunboats,” a Sea Shepherd press release explained. “A letter from Makah tribal chair
Hubert Markishtum describes the bullets as having about 10 times the energy of those fired
by a standard assault rifle. They can efficiently shatter a ship’s hull a mile away. There
isn’t a trace of so-called ceremonial aboriginal whaling in the Makah plan––it’s blatant
undeniable anti-whale warfare. Sea Shepherd believes the military-grade ordinance could
also be used to intimidate or threaten National Marine Fisheries Service enforcement officers––and
environmentalists––who might attempt to prevent any illegal whale hunting.”
The Makah proposal is supported by the Bill Clinton/Albert Gore administration,
whose officials are expected to seek international permission for the Makah to whale at the
October meeting of the International Whaling Commission.
Sea Shepherd concerns, shared by most of the whale protection community, are
not only that grey whales will be killed, but also that the resumption of a “traditional”
coastal whaling industry could set a favorable precedent for Norwegian and Japanese
whalers; hunting a recently endangered species could set a precedent for Norwegian and
Japanese hunting of species other than the relatively abundant minkes; 13 Canadian tribal
bands have indicated that they too wish to resume “traditional” whaling; and whaling will
drive the whales farther offshore, destroying the whale-watching industry, which despite
harassing whales all too often, has accomplished much on their behalf.
Further, Distefano believes, the Makah could use their aboriginal treaty rights to
live-capture orcas for sale to marine mammal parks, a practice suspended on Puget Sound
Despite the immediacy of the Makah whaling issue, there were barely enough visitors
at both Eastsound and Friday Harbor, in mid-tourist season, to keep dockside conversations
going. The curious would walk back and forth several times, sneaking incredulous
looks at Watson and The Sirenian, only gradually venturing within talking distance. They
seemed initially nervous about associating with a bunch of possibly dangerous radicals,
whose cause they seemed to think was an anachronism. At least half wore garments emblazoned
with whales, yet no more than one in five was aware that whaling continues, let
alone that whales and seals are aggressively targeted around the world.
Over and over, the Sea Shepherds explained the repeal of the dolphin-safe tuna
import standard, in effect since 1990. The repeal bill sailed through the House and Senate,
over the opposition of 85 animal and habitat protection groups, and went to Clinton on July
31 to be signed into law. The threat of filibuster by Senator Barbara Boxer (D-California),
who authored the dolphin-safe standard, brought only amendments to the House version
passed in May which in effect extend the use of the “dolphin-safe” label for another 18
months. After that, tuna netted “on dolphin” may also be labeled “dolphin-safe” if the
National Marine Fisheries Service ratifies the labeling in March 1999 and again by
December 31, 2002. Under the 1995 Declaration of Panama, the 12 major tuna-fishing
nations including the U.S. agree to hold “observed” dolphin deaths in tuna nets to fewer
than 5,000 a year. The deal––and the repeal of the “dolphin safe” standard––drew support
from the World Wildlife Fund, Environmental Defense Fund, and Greenpeace.
The latter accurately point out that while dolphins are killed when fishers set huge
nets around them to catch the tuna who tend to swim below the leading alternate method,
setting nets around floating logs, not only kills some dolphins but also kills endangered
sharks and sea turtles.
Yet some tuna species, too, are in serious peril, if not on endangered lists
because of the economic clout of the fishing industry.
“Sharks, tunas, and billfish are being taken from the oceans faster than they can
replace themselves,” confirmed the Ocean Wildlife Campaign just days earlier, launching a
publicity drive jointly supported by the World Wildlife Fund, Wildlife Conservation
Society, New England Aquarium, Natural Resources Defense Council, National Coalition
for Marine Conservation, and National Audubon Society. “Some populations of bluefin
tuna have plummeted nearly 90% since the 1970s. The breeding population of swordfish
now being caught is half what it was 15 years ago. Blue and white marlin have declined 60-
80% in the last two decades. Several shark populations have declined 80-90% in U.S.
waters during the past decade alone.”
What they dare not say is that the fishing industry itself is the culprit––that the
most effective response to the crisis would be to stop eating fish.
Thinking Greenpeace did it
At dockside in Friday Harbor, one person actually stated, in so many words, “I
thought Greenpeace had saved the seals and whales.”
Watson and crew member Al “Jet” Johnson, the first president of Greenpeace
Canada, tried to set the record straight. Atlantic Canadians massacred 285,000 seals this
year, more than 20 years ago, when Jet put himself between a seal pup and a club while
Watson tossed another sealer’s club into the sea. Namibia is expanding its sealing industry,
competing with Atlantic Canada to sell seal penises to Asia. Uruguayan fishers have
demanded the resumption of sea lion “culling,” halted in 1991 when the government ran out
of funding to subsidize it. Disregarding the advice of marine biologists, the Finland
Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry recently authorized fishers to kill 30 grey seals, in
hopes the scapegoating will reduce illegal shootings of regionally endangered grey and
ringed seals. Brazilian authorities are reportedly unable to stop sea lion killing by fishers,
who are increasingly heavily armed, not only to kill marine mammals but also to settle disputes
over fishing territory.
That’s nothing new, said Watson: Pacific Northwest fishers likewise blame and
illegally shoot seals and sea lions for eating salmon. Just a day earlier, the Sea Shepherds
found a sea lion carcass with multiple bullet wounds near Neah Bay.
Nor will fish-farming help marine mammals much, even if it does eventually
reduce the pressure on wild fish stocks. “Seals have gotten very cheeky,” New Zealand
King Salmon Company CEO Paul Steere complained in late July, arguing that New
Zealand should allow seals to be killed if they persist in raiding sea pens and nets after just
two hours of attempted discouragement. British Columbia fish farmers received permits to
shoot as many as 400 marine mammals in 1996, according to the Georgia Strait Alliance,
possibly including Stellar sea lions, whose population is in steep decline, probably because
they can’t find enough to eat over much of their fished-out range.
No pinnipeds are at greater risk of extinction than Mediterranean monk seals, who
numbered circa 500 before an unidentified illness killed two-thirds of the largest colony earlier
this summer, and may now be down to just two or three hundred scattered individuals––but
Turkish fish farmers reportedly blame the desperate monk seals for “huge losses.”
“We can thank Greenpeace for the whaling moratorium,” a bystander offered.
Norway killed 503 minke whales this year. Japan killed 440. Eighteen years after
Watson with Johnson’s help drove pirate whalers out of the Atlantic, a pirate whaler of
unknown nationality butchered countless sperm whales off the Azores while Watson spent
six weeks in a Dutch prison, fighting a Norwegian extradition attempt.
Greenpeace Norway spokesperson Kalle Hessvedt reportedly indicated in a May
21 newspaper interview and May 22 radio broadcast that Greenpeace may not oppose
Norwegian whaling if it ever wins IWC approval––consistent with a 1994 position paper
advising Greenpeace senior officials that, “Greenpeace does not oppose whaling, in principle…Greenpeace
is neither for nor against the killing of marine mammals.”
Sensing that betrayal coming, Greenpeace cofounders Watson and Jet Johnson left
20 years ago to start the Sea Shepherds, but even clutching Sea Shepherd handouts, some
passers-by departed at Friday Harbor saying over their shoulders, “You Greenpeacers are
doing a great job––we’ll donate when your people come to the door.”
“Greenpeacers are the Avon ladies of the environmental movement,” Watson
repeated quietly, a line he first used in announcing the formation of the Sea Shepherds.
Then he raised his voice. “We don’t go door-to-door,” he yelled after the people, “but
there’s a donation form in The Sea Shepherd log.”
The last sunlight glinted off the windows of the Friday Harbor Whale Museum, an
institution focused on freeing Lolita, one of the last surviving orcas captured from Puget
Sound, held since 1973 by the Miami Seaquarium. TV sets flickered aboard the larger
yachts. Radios could be heard from others. At least seven national, regional, and local
newspapers were sold from machines right at the head of the wharf, some with items about
whales and sea lions on page one. But on this particular summer evening, the word about
what’s really happening to marine mammals traveled much as it did in the days of Jonah,
another prophet seldom heeded