Whale of a tale
Local Sea Shepherd fundraiser highlights the plight of cetaceans
“I think it’s very telling that all societal change throughout history comes about through the actions of compassionate individuals—rarely governments.”
Sea Shepherd Conservation Society
As he tells it, Chico State English professor and author (and unabashed longtime whale-lover) Steve Metzger was originally invited by 1078 Gallery board member Kathleen McPartland to do a fiction reading at the gallery.
“I told her I’d rather do something that I’d like to attend,” continued Metzger—not joking—explaining how he came up with the idea to host last Saturday’s well-attended fundraiser at the gallery.
The event was designed to raise much-needed money for both the gallery and for international nonprofit Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, a marine wildlife protection group thrust into the limelight recently due to the success of the action-packed Animal Planet show Whale Wars—going into its second season—documenting Sea Shepherd’s eventful encounters with Japanese whaling ships in the Southern Ocean Whale Sanctuary off the coast of Antarctica.
An array of soulful performances by a variety of local musicians—including the Celtic Knights of the Sea Men’s Choir, of which Metzger is a member—were woven around readings from Moby Dick, talks by whaling and whaling-literature experts, a raffle, and a captivating video, 30 Years on the Frontline, outlining Sea Shepherd’s efforts on behalf of the world’s whales, seals, sharks and other protected marine life.
The all-volunteer event raised about $1,700, said Metzger, with $800 going to Sea Shepherd.
“We rely 100 percent on public support and donations,” said an appreciative Peter Hammarstedt, Sea Shepherd crew coordinator, and first mate—second in command only to the ship’s iconic silver-haired Capt. Paul Watson—of the Dutch-registered MV Steve Irwin, the group’s anti-whaling ship named after late Australian wildlife expert and conservationist. “We rely on volunteers, and all the money we get goes right into our fuel tank.”
The Swedish-born Hammarstedt—an articulate, likeable man in his mid-20s—was speaking by cell phone on a recent afternoon, Australia time, from the Steve Irwin, which was docked in Hobart, Tasmania. The ship had just completed Sea Shepherd’s fifth Antarctic Whale Defense Campaign—dubbed “Operation Musashi,” in the spirit of legendary early 17th-century Japanese samurai warrior Miyamoto Musashi—chasing and obstructing ships killing whales for commercial purposes, under the guise of scientific research.
While whale meat is becoming a less popular delicacy in modern-day Japan—some young members of Sea Shepherd, in fact, are Japanese—it wasn’t too long ago that it was still on school lunch menus. Japanese culture has a long history of whaling, especially in the economically difficult post-World War II era. Whale can still be found in restaurants there.
Supported by the Tokyo-based Institute of Cetacean Research (ICR)—believed by many to be merely a front group for commercial whaling interests—the charge of “eco-terrorism” is thrown back on Sea Shepherd by the crews of such Japanese whaling (prominently labeled “research”) ships as the Nisshin Maru and the Yushin Marus, No. 2 and No. 3, which have been on the receiving end of such whaling-deterrent tactics as being rammed by the Steve Irwin and having buoy-laden mooring ropes entangling their propellers.
“It’s like the wild, wild West out on the high seas. The laws are in place, but the enforcement is lacking,” offered Hammarstedt. “Greenpeace has banners and takes photos—that’s all well and good. But nobody else is actively stopping them—that’s our function. That’s what we’re trying to film. … One of the weapons the Japanese are most afraid of is the camera.”
Hammarstedt pointed out that Japanese whaling takes place in the Southern Ocean Whale Sanctuary on a regular basis in opposition to the International Whaling Commission’s 1986 moratorium on commercial whaling.
“We’re not a protest group; we’re a law-enforcement group. Any NGO has the right to uphold an international conservation law,” he added.
Hammarstedt has sailed with Watson—a former Greenpeace member (and co-founder) from Canada who founded Sea Shepherd in 1977—on “countless expeditions” since joining the group 5 1/2 years ago, beginning with an anti-fish-poaching campaign in the Galapagos Islands and finishing up (for the moment) with the group’s most recent Antarctic anti-whaling expedition.
The young first mate has many stories of the brutality he has witnessed against the gentle, giant whales—valued increasingly by such countries as Australia for their tourist-attracting value.
Contrary to ICR claims that its whale-killing methods are “humane,” and either “instantaneous” or take, at the most, “less than two minutes,” Hammerstedt, his voice drenched with controlled emotion, talked of watching one harpooned whale suffering for 22 agonizing minutes, “suffocating on her own blood.”
Hammarstedt is clearly floored by the fact that one type of whale routinely killed by ICR-sponsored boats is the threatened minke whale—or “the steak whale,” as it is colloquially called.
“The minke whale does not have that much oil, unlike the sperm whale,” Hammarstedt said. “It’s like when a cow is slaughtered for certain parts, like the filet mignon. After the prime cuts [of the minke whale] are taken, you end up with five or six tons of whale meat left over that gets made into dog food.”
Hammarstedt noted that the whaling operation is heavily subsidized by Japan, so Sea Shepherd’s intervention hits the country squarely in the pocketbook. Taking away the profit motive by taking away the spoils is just one strategy.
“In five weeks, we cost them half their quota,” he said, referring to the number of whales killed during a five-week chase. “We cost them $70 million. Money is really the only language they speak.
“Killing the whale is no different than poaching an elephant in Africa,” offered Hammarstedt. “But because it takes place on the high seas, it’s ‘out of sight, out of mind.’
“In my native city of Stockholm, if I see a man kick his dog in the street, I’m going to stop that man,” said Hammarstedt, who’s known on the ship as “The Hammer.” “If I hear domestic violence going on behind a closed door, I’m going to intervene. I only weigh 63 kilos [138 pounds] … but I’ll still break the door down if I have to.”
He called Japan’s research “product development.” The whaling vessels don’t have the IWC permit required for scientific purposes, only permission from the county’s own Japanese fisheries, he said.
Hammarstedt’s response to criticism of Sea Shepherd is simple:
“We’re not ‘eco-terrorists’—we’re eco-warriors,” he summed up. “Warriors fight because it’s the right thing to do. … We don‘t really give a damn about public opinion. Our clients are the whales, the seals, the fish—we try to represent them as best we can. … We’re known in Japan as the no-nonsense samurai conservation group. When we show up, they just take off running.
“If we can keep them running, they’re not whaling.”