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Targeting the whale hunters: on patrol with Sea Shepherd

Beatrice Yannacopoulou

1st November, 2011

A volunteer crew member on the Sea Shepherd's Steve Irwin ship during recent operations targeting bluefin tuna fishing and pilot whale hunting argues the organisations' activities are vital for preventing slaughter on the high seas

During the summer I spent three months at sea with the non-profit direct action organization Sea Shepherd Conservation Society. I joined the crew of the MY Steve Irwin, a former Scottish fisheries patrol vessel, at the end of May for their Mediterranean campaign against bluefin tuna poaching: Operation Blue Rage.

Like the rest of the volunteers on board, I joined the crew of the Sea Shepherd out of a need to actively counter the ‘business as usual' that reduces the Earth and its inhabitant to exploitable commodities. The Earth is being resourced according to a monetary bottom line that leaves no room for life's intrinsic value. So much so that even a species, like bluefin tuna, that will vanish from the oceans as a result of commercial fishing within the next few years, is understood in terms of economies of extinction. In other words, the fewer there are, the higher the price tag per kilo.

Having gone through this experience, I am convinced of the crucial role direct action has to play in the struggle for environmental justice (in which social justice is implicit). There are incidences of people who are driven to acts of violence through a perverted sense of right and wrong. This is not what I am referring to. Rather, the direct action that I am inspired by, and Sea Shepherd campaigns are an example of, is a fight for and an expression of collective justice.

Sea Shepherd is best known for battling Japanese whalers in the Southern Ocean, a whale sanctuary since 1994, and for the ongoing television docu-series Whale Wars. There has been a ban on commercial whaling since 1986. The Japanese claim their hunt is for the purpose of scientific research. As a result of Sea Shepherd's unrelenting interventions during last year's Antarctic campaign, Operation No Compromise, Japanese whalers quit early in the season and headed home with less than 20 per cent of their quota. That is to say, as a result of Sea Shepherd's actions more than 800 whales were saved.

There is no doubt that this kind of direct action is a nuisance. It is meant to be. It is an overt challenge to business as usual. It challenges the law by either exposing it to be inadequate in protecting common interests or, that the law is not being enforced. Finally, it challenges us to reconsider our values and the consequences of passive compliance with the status quo.

Those most invested in marginalising activists and their cause label them extremist, violent, and as having no regard for the law or for property. This language attempts to isolate the cause, its values and its pro-activity from the collective values of society. It aims to reduce the ‘act' to being an imposition to progress for ecological justice, which we are told relies on dialogue and negotiation.

As the exploitation of the Earth continues, its wild voices silenced by the onslaught of extinction, and as we face the chaos of climate change and ocean acidification, the bold statements made by our governments that promise to bring the Earth back from the brink of ecological disaster evaporate, revealing glaring inconsistencies and the enduring power yielded by vested interests.

Acts of resistance

Self-organised acts of defiance, often courageous, capture the imagination and empower through an example of active resistance. Every port we came into, the Steve Irwin was met by crowds of people who wanted to show their support. While in Syracuse, Sicily, Enzo Maiorca, the record holding free diver portrayed by Jean Reno in the film the Big Blue, visited the ship. He left wearing a Sea Shepherd jolly roger t-shirt.

The Sea Shepherd Conservation Society captured my imagination. During Operation Blue Rage in 2010-11, Sea Shepherd divers freed some 800 bluefin tuna by cutting the nets of a holding cage.

The plight of bluefin tuna might be lost to many by the overwhelming rate of vanishing species, but it too lives precariously on the edge of extinction as a result of commercial fishing. Since the mid 1970s the population of bluefin tuna has fallen by 75 per cent. Half of that loss has occurred in the last decade. There is little time left to stop this exploitation and allow the bluefin tuna population to recover to sustainable numbers.

Despite warnings from scientists, the establishment of a regulatory body to manage the commercialisation of bluefin tuna (ICCAT), and legislation that legally binds the EU to protect the species and take action to rebuild bluefin tuna population by 2020, financial interests continue to trump ecological necessity and are keeping the tuna fisheries open for business.

This is a business that can fetch over $100, 000 per fish. It is conservatively worth over $400 million a year. The black market of bluefin tuna is rampant. The mechanism that has been put in place to trace and protect bluefin tuna does not work. A report in 2010, Looting the Seas, by the Independent Consortium of Investigative Journalists revealed that 87 per cent of all bluefin tuna purse seiner fishing boats were missing some piece of information that would determine whether the catch was legal or not. This year's ICIJ expose, Looting the Seas II, is even more damning.

Operation Blue Rage was followed by Operation Ferocious Isles, a campaign to oppose the 'Grindadrap,' an organized slaughter of pilot whales in the Faroe Islands. On average, 1,000 pilot whales are annually forced into killing bays and quite literary butchered by hand of the local villagers. Under the presumption of cultural heritage, when a pod of whales is seen, a large number of fishing boats go out, surround and drive the pilot whales into fjords and on to the beaches. Then men and young boys wade into the water with sharp hooks and knives to systematically kill every member of the pod. Whale pods are a complex social group, much like a family.

While we patrolled the Faroese waters, not a single Grind occurred. The Faroese wanted to avoid the conflict that would arise if caught in the act of Grind by Sea Shepherd, and the international attention that it would bring. Under EU law, all whales are protected against ‘disturbance, capture or killing'. All member states are legally obliged to observe this law. The Faroes are not a part of the EU, but they are a protectorate of Denmark and so they indirectly receive EU subsidies.

Despite not having seen much wildlife in the North Sea, during one of our patrols, we came across a mega pod of some 350 pilot whales feeding in the local waters. We spent the entire day with them, captivated, as they surrounded our ship, playful and mutually curious. It is difficult to put into words such an encounter with the wild. The beauty of it is overwhelming. It is also heartbreaking, to see what we are destroying. How innocent and vulnerable these creatures are to humanity's insatiable appetite. How easy it is to surround the pods and drive them into the killing bays. Within a few days of Sea Shepherd leaving the Faeroes, the slaughter resumed with 130 pilot whales being killed.

There are attempts to brand Sea Shepherd a rogue organization. In response, Sea Shepherd cites the laws it is trying to uphold through its campaigns, during which no one has been injured, crew member and opposition alike. The crew, however, does not volunteer out of a passion for the law, but is motivated by a passion for life, compassion and justice. They are committed, disciplined, hard working and courageous.

On the bridge of the Steve Irwin, by the compass there is a statue of Hayagriva, the Buddhist deity of wrath. This was given to Paul Watson, the founder of Sea Shepherd, by the Dalai Lama. Hayagriva is the fierce and determined guardian of absolute compassion.

The crew are now preparing the ship for another campaign in the often treacherous Southern Ocean, to once again battle the Japanese whalers. There is something incredibly pure and powerful when conviction and action are so perfectly aligned.

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