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Canadians Abroad: Paul Watson, Defender of Whales

February 18, 2009

Paul Watson, Canadian self-styled pirate and head of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, has a long record of trying to save the denizens of the world’s oceans from nasty old Homo sapiens. He has been stoutly defending marine mammals since the 1970s, and his primary tactic has been to make a godawful nuisance of himself. He and his crews have destroyed property, interposed themselves between hunters and animals, and photographed and videotaped moments of slaughter.

Lately the highest-profile Sea Shepherd campaign has been against Japanese whaling in the Antarctic. Although the International Whaling Commission (IWC) maintains a moratorium on commercial whaling, Japanese vessels continue to pursue a smallish annual quota of Antarctic minke whales, ostensibly for research. However, the whale meat ends up on the small commercial market that still exists in Japan, and the research itself seems slanted towards proving that whales are abundant enough for commercial whaling to resume. Meanwhile, whale-loving countries such as Australia, New Zealand, the US and the UK seem perversely determined to use the IWC to prevent almost all whaling, rather than simply to manage whale populations.

Watson and his Antarctic vessel, the Steve Irwin, have sailed cheerfully into the fray. For the past few austral summers they have made it their business to chase the Japanese whalers, fouling propellers, hurling stinkbombs, shooting footage, and generally getting in the way. This season was particularly intense, at least by Sea Shepherd’s account. The whalers allegedly deployed acoustic weapons and water cannons to repel Watson’s boats, threw metallic objects, and killed several whales practically under the noses of the Sea Shepherd activists. Earlier this month the Steve Irwin finally gave over for the season, in the face of diminishing fuel and rumours that the Japanese were about to go after them with a “security vessel” carrying a “special boarding unit”.

In some general sense, Watson is doing precisely what more Canadians ought to: going abroad, making a difference, acting on the courage of his convictions with ingenuity, resolution, and a fair measure of humour. However, his particular convictions make him almost into a caricature of an animal welfare activist. Watson has described sealers as “sadistic baby killers”, commercial fishermen as guilty of “raping the sea”, and humans in general as the “AIDS of the earth“. Rather than simply wanting to save animals from extinction, he regards their individual lives as being “as sacred – as meaningful and as important” as human ones.

All this is a bit un-Canadian. Hunting has been in our national DNA ever since the glory days of the Hudson’s Bay Company, and is still part of the fabric of life in northern Canada in particular. Let’s push for a sensible international approach that rigorously protects endangered marine mammal species, while allowing healthy ones to be exploited within reasonable limits by the Japanese, various Scandinavian peoples, and others who are culturally comfortable with the practice. Canadians belong on that list as well, at least if we look beyond the squeamish sensibilities of many urbanites.


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3 Comments leave one →
  1. March 8, 2009 7:55 am

    Have Australians Stopped Killing Whales? What do you think?

    Please complete our poll on Whaling, too.

    Thanks Lesley

  2. corsullivan permalink*
    February 22, 2009 2:40 am

    Thanks for the thoughtful comments. I definitely agree about the need for balance, and yes, there might be a place for pirates in cases where a species is being pushed towards extinction and governments are failing to take effective action. Perhaps Steller’s sea cow would still be with us if the pirates of the 18th century had been more interested in ecology as opposed to chests of gold and bottles of rum. However, I think Paul Watson’s extreme, uncompromising attitude does a lot more harm than good.

  3. February 19, 2009 11:42 am

    I’m a hunter myself, and I’ve never understood the irrational opposition of Greenpeace and others to, say, the seal hunt. And I do see your point about responsibly managing whale populations – especially now that so many species have rebounded while fish stocks are collapsing.

    Still, I can’t help but feel a certain pride when I see a Sea Shepherd ship take on those who really are, in many cases, breaking the law and/or engaged in cruel and destructive practices.

    There’s a whole sequence in the documentary ‘Sharkwater’ where Paul Watson and company go up against shark poachers at the request of the Costa Rican government – and are then themselves arrested by Costa Rican authorities. By any standard, shark finning is a truly despicable practise that is decimating shark populations worldwide, so in that particular case my sympathies were entirely with Watson. In other cases, not so much.

    Somehow, as in all things, there must be a balance. Decisions need to be based on a rational analysis of populations and ecologies and our effect on them, and we can’t let the debate be taken over by celebrity photo-ops and drama on the high seas. But I think, too, that when treaties and international agreements fail, there might also be a place for pirates.

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