Rocked by its in­abil­ity to pro­tect whales in the South­ern Ocean this sum­mer, Sea Shep­herd Australia re­mains awestruck by the gen­eros­ity of the peo­ple of Ho­bart

Mercury (Hobart) - Magazine - - Up Front - WORDS TIM MARTAIN

Why Sea Shep­herd is be­ing forced to change tack in its fight against whalers

The news that Sea Shep­herd is be­ing forced to sus­pend its long-run­ning anti-whal­ing op­er­a­tions in the South­ern Ocean came as a shock to the or­gan­i­sa­tion’s many sup­port­ers world­wide. With the Ja­panese whal­ing fleet us­ing in­creas­ingly ad­vanced tech­nol­ogy to evade the protest ves­sels, the non-profit conservation or­gan­i­sa­tion has con­ceded it can no longer com­pete.

While this is clearly a dev­as­tat­ing de­vel­op­ment for whale pro­tec­tion, with Sea Shep­herd ves­sels un­able to dis­rupt whalers, it is also a sad turn of events for Ho­bart, which serves as home base for the Sea Shep­herd ves­sels in sum­mer, dur­ing whal­ing season.

These im­pos­ing and dis­tinc­tive ships are an in­stant fo­cal point ev­ery time they tie up in the har­bour. Lo­cals flock to the water­side to wel­come them and line up with their chil­dren for guided tours of the ships. The skull and crossed crook and tri­dent has be­come a beloved in­signia around Ho­bart, with Sea Shep­herd crew mem­bers feel­ing most wel­come while ashore.

Ahead of an ex­hi­bi­tion in Ho­bart next week, Sea Shep­herd Australia man­ag­ing di­rec­tor Jeff Hansen has re­flected on Ho­bart’s hos­pi­tal­ity, a trea­sured part of the ex­pe­ri­ence for vol­un­teers em­bark­ing on mis­sions to the South­ern Ocean.

“Ho­bart is considered to be the gate­way to Antarc­tica, which is one of the rea­sons we chose to make it our base for those South­ern Ocean op­er­a­tions. But more than that we have found the city to al­ways be amaz­ingly help­ful,” Hansen says.

“The crew mem­bers al­ways find it a re­ally hum­bling ex­pe­ri­ence to be walk­ing in the streets of Ho­bart with their Sea Shep­herd gear on and hav­ing mem­bers of the public ap­proach them to say thank you, or of­fer­ing to buy them a meal or a drink. The crew are all vol­un­teers – they’re not be­ing paid to do what they do – so when peo­ple offer ges­tures like that, it means a great deal.”

Sea Shep­herd ves­sels also rely heav­ily on do­na­tions to re­stock their gal­leys and re­pair and re­place parts of the ships, and Hansen says Ho­bart has a rep­u­ta­tion for al­ways be­ing will­ing to help.

“Be­fore we ar­rive, we usually try to get the word out through the me­dia and pub­lish lists of items and sup­plies we need,” he says. “And each time we ar­rive in Ho­bart we find peo­ple com­ing down to the water­front, from all over the region, bring­ing boxes of fresh fruit and veg­eta­bles for the crew. After so long at sea, the thing you crave the most is fresh pro­duce.

“As well as peo­ple and busi­nesses do­nat­ing food, we also get tradies, like sparkies and me­chan­ics vol­un­teer­ing their time to help us re­pair en­gines and so forth. It re­ally is in­cred­i­ble, the gen­eros­ity.”

Hansen es­ti­mates Sea Shep­herd has saved the lives of about 6000 whales in the South­ern Ocean in the past decade by ham­per­ing the op­er­a­tions of Ja­panese whal­ing fleets, which use the loop­hole of sci­en­tific re­search to jus­tify har­poon­ing in the South­ern Ocean Whale Sanc­tu­ary off Antarc­tica.

An in­ter­na­tional mora­to­rium on com­mer­cial whal­ing has been in ef­fect since 1987, which is the same year Ja­pan started its “sci­en­tific re­search” whal­ing in the South­ern Ocean. Ja­pan’s whal­ing has been ruled as il­le­gal by The In­ter­na­tional Court of Jus­tice in The Hague, and in 2014 the Aus­tralian Fed­eral Court fined the Ja­panese whal­ing fleet $1 mil­lion for “wil­ful con­tempt” of a 2008 in­junc­tion ban­ning the killing of whales in a des­ig­nated Aus­tralian Whale Sanc­tu­ary. The fine has not been paid.

Sea Shep­herd em­barked on its first Antarc­tic whale de­fence mis­sion in 2002, do­ing all it could to im­pede the hunt by warn­ing whales away from the area and ha­rass­ing the Ja­panese ves­sels. It has con­tin­ued this mis­sion year after year, with newer and faster ships, trying to keep up with Ja­panese whalers, who also up­grade their hard­ware each season in a sort of open-ocean arms race.

One Ja­panese gov­ern­ment of­fi­cial is re­ported to have said: “Ja­pan only has two en­e­mies in the world we are con­cerned with – China and Sea Shep­herd.” But just a month ago, Sea Shep­herd was forced to an­nounce it would be un­able to con­tinue its pur­suit of Ja­panese whalers this sum­mer.

Sea Shep­herd founder Paul Wat­son says the whalers’ use of mil­i­tary-grade tech­nol­ogy, in­clud­ing real-time satel­lite cov­er­age, had sim­ply made it im­pos­si­ble for Sea Shep­herd ves­sels to catch them. But he re­fuses to see it as a de­feat.

“We don’t have their money, we don’t have their tech­nol­ogy, but we are going to have to find an al­ter­na­tive way to deal with them, and we will,” Wat­son said on Au­gust 29.

Wat­son crit­i­cised the Aus­tralian Gov­ern­ment for not do­ing more to help Sea Shep­herd’s ef­forts in thwart­ing the whalers, say­ing what a difference it would have made to its cam­paign if Sea Shep­herd had ac­cess to sim­i­lar satel­lite data or some kind of naval sup­port.

He says it is now Australia’s re­spon­si­bil­ity to send one of its ships south to keep tabs on for­eign whalers this sum­mer.

While anti-whal­ing op­er­a­tions are on hold for the fore­see­able fu­ture, Sea Shep­herd is not rest­ing on its lau­rels, nor is it leav­ing Tas­ma­nia. Whal­ing may be the cause for which it is best known, but the in­ter­na­tional or­gan­i­sa­tion has sev­eral ma­rine ecol­ogy strings to its bow.

Sea Shep­herd Australia’s Op­er­a­tion Apex Har­mony is work­ing to stop il­le­gal shark fish­ing around Ti­mor-Leste and has cam­paigned against the use of shark nets and drum lines around the Aus­tralian coast, say­ing these mea­sures do more to harm ma­rine life than pro­tect hu­mans.

It is pre­par­ing for a sus­tained cam­paign against the pro­posed Adani Coal Mine in Queens­land, amid fears the mine will dam­age the Great Bar­rier Reef due to ships pass­ing close by, as well as through the global warm­ing ef­fects pro­duced by burn­ing its coal.

And it will re­main ac­tive in Tas­ma­nia, sup­port­ing com­mu­nity op­po­si­tion to Tas­sal’s es­tab­lish­ment of a large-scale salmon­farm­ing op­er­a­tion at Oke­hamp­ton Bay near Tri­abunna.

“Tas­sal has plans to put 28 net­ted pens filled with 800,000 fish in an area that is a crit­i­cal nurs­ery for the south­ern right whale,” Sea Shep­herd Australia spokesman Adam Burl­ing says.

“The Aus­tralian Gov­ern­ment’s De­part­ment of En­vi­ron­ment and En­ergy de­ter­mined the de­vel­op­ment ‘could have a sig­nif­i­cant im­pact’ on en­dan­gered south­ern right whales.”

Per­haps Tas­ma­nia’s par­tic­u­larly stoic sup­port for the Sea Shep­herd re­lates to our per­va­sive connection to the sea. Fish­er­men, surfers, recre­ational sailors, beach-lovers … so many of us have some link to the ocean. We are sur­rounded by water, after all. Sea Shep­herd has 16 chap­ters around Australia, with 25 vol­un­teers mak­ing up the Tas­ma­nian chap­ter.

The irony, of course, is Ho­bart’s his­tor­i­cal connection to whal­ing, the in­dus­try upon which the city was ef­fec­tively founded. In the early 1800s, whales were so pro­lific in the River Der­went it could be quite dan­ger­ous to sail on the river in a small boat, and it was said the noise of whales splash­ing and breach­ing was so great it was dif­fi­cult for those liv­ing near the river to sleep.

“Back then, whales would come right up to boats for a look. They were so in­quis­i­tive and trust­ing, and then they would get hit with a har­poon,” Hansen says.

“But if we keep do­ing what we are do­ing, pro­tect­ing whales from slaugh­ter, I be­lieve they will come back. The Der­went could be full of whales again.

“And thanks to the amaz­ing sup­port of Ho­bart over the years, the peo­ple of Ho­bart can take own­er­ship of our vic­to­ries. When our footy team wins a game, we take own­er­ship of that vic­tory, it is our win as well. And I want peo­ple to have the own­er­ship of Sea Shep­herd. If you dropped off some food or do­nated money or bought a crew mem­ber a drink, you share our vic­to­ries ev­ery time we shut down an il­le­gal fish­ing op­er­a­tion or whale hunt.”

Tas­ma­ni­ans are fre­quently over-rep­re­sented among the Aus­tralians on Sea Shep­herd ves­sels, which can some­times be crewed by vol­un­teers from up to 21 coun­tries. And when­ever a ves­sel berths in Ho­bart, there are al­ways in­quiries from Tas­ma­ni­ans who turn up and ask about join­ing the cause.

The or­gan­i­sa­tion’s in­ter­na­tional rep­u­ta­tion also at­tracts celebrity crew mem­bers from time to time. Hol­ly­wood actor Michelle Ro­driguez was seen jog­ging on the water­front at lunchtime when she was in Ho­bart as part of a vol­un­teer crew.

There is a chance we might see Sea Shep­herd re­turn to the Der­went sooner than ex­pected.

“We have in­ter­vened to stop Patag­o­nian tooth­fish poach­ers in the South­ern Ocean in the past. There were six ves­sels down there wanted by In­ter­pol and we cleaned them up,” Hansen says.

“We are mon­i­tor­ing the sit­u­a­tion down there again this year and if poacher ves­sels are de­tected that would mean us com­ing to Ho­bart once again. We’ll wait and see.”

Few will ar­gue against the wor­thi­ness of Sea Shep­herd’s cause, but there are those who have ques­tioned their in­volve­ment in ac­tively ha­rass­ing, pur­su­ing and ham­per­ing other ves­sels at sea.

Does a small band of pro­test­ers, with­out the ex­press back­ing of any par­tic­u­lar gov­ern­ment or of­fi­cial body, have the right to take the law into its own hands?

What­ever the an­swer is to this ques­tion, an­other seems to fol­low: If not Sea Shep­herd, then who? This year is the 40th an­niver­sary of Sea Shep­herd, and the 10th An­niver­sary of Sea Shep­herd Australia. To mark the oc­ca­sion an ex­hi­bi­tion is be­ing held at the Maw­son Water­side Pavil­ion in Ho­bart from Tues­day un­til Sun­day, Oc­to­ber 8. The dis­play in­cludes arte­facts and pho­tos from Sea Shep­herd’s past op­er­a­tions at sea, sto­ries from Tas­ma­nian cam­paign­ers about their ex­pe­ri­ences, and conservation-themed art­work by 15 Tas­ma­nian artists. Open 11am-7pm Tues­day to Thurs­day, 11am-9pm Fri­day and Satur­day, and 11am-2pm Sun­day. En­try to the event is free. Sea Shep­herd mer­chan­dise and some art­work will be for sale


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