16 November 2018

Japanese Whalers employ dangerous tactics…

In an unprecedented attack on one of the Sea Shepherd vessels monitoring their illegal whaling activities in the Southern Ocean the Japanese whale catcher boat Shonan Maru No 2 rammed the much smaller Ady Gil causing extensive damage to the vessel and seriously endangering the crew.

This reckless endangerment of life on the high seas by the Japanese whaling vessel Shonan Maru should attract nothing short of international condemnation and censorship and international communities should demand an apology, reparations to repair/replace the seriously damaged craft and the captain and crew of the Japanese vessel responsible for the ramming should face criminal charges.

To watch the video of this blatant act click here


“Sufficiency” Economics – Could it work for West Cork?

During the 30 years since his death I can honestly say there are few days when I have not thought about my father, Pa as we all called him. Such was his legacy that most of my achievements in life result from his influence and guidance. A successful man by many standards who enjoyed a long and happy marriage, he managed to raise a family through the inflation ridden 70’s and was a gifted and practical man with his hands. In business however, he was considered a failure. Not because of dissatisfied customers, a poor work ethic or a discontented workforce. No, ahead of his time, he committed the cardinal business sin of being a dedicated exponent of “low growth economics” or as he often called it “sufficient growth economics”. In the face of abject criticism he rarely swayed from his firmly held beliefs on environmentally sustainable economics; important issues he believed were society’s obligation to future generations.

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As a teenager, focusing more on girls than Gross Domestic Product, Pa described to me how growth in Gross World Product was unsustainable year on year and could not continue unchecked without catastrophic environmental and social cost. Now, as I read reports of how key countries are wrestling with devastating environmental decline and poverty fuelled by an unsustainable economic growth model, his words echo across the decades like a biblical prophet.

As we collectively enjoy the outwardly pristine environmental beauty of our West Cork paradise, whether born here or drawn here, we could be forgiven for not immediately recognizing that our dominant, consumerist, unsustainable economic growth model is in a state of crisis. A crisis that if unchecked may negatively impact the regional economy of West Cork through environmental degradation, reduced tourism revenues, unemployment and lower quality of life. We should never try to view environmental or economic issues in isolation but at significant risk from this unsustainable economics model is one of our most vulnerable and unique ecosystems, the West Cork marine environment.

As one of the most precious elements of our cherished maritime heritage it is now under enormous threat from damaging and unsustainable fishing practices. Now our beleaguered fishermen have received their fair share of negative press but ongoing lasting marine conservation is not about apportioning blame. The brave men who take to our frequently inhospitable seas in order to supply West Cork and other national and international markets with seafood, are no more culpable than the politicians, bureaucrats, fisheries scientists, retail outlets and consumers that fuel an expanding demand for fish – all within an unsustainable economic model that exploits a renewable resource that is being consumed faster than it can regenerate. We collectively need to shoulder the responsibility for an array of ineffectual and sometimes damaging fisheries management strategies, inconclusive science that has lacked conviction, a continual drive to reduce on-the-shelf prices and a lack of willingness to acknowledge, not only the material price but also the environmental and social cost of putting fish on our plates.

Irish fisheries scientists have estimated that many, if not all of the species targeted by West Cork and other Irish fishing fleets are seriously over fished and therefore at risk. Over the last 35 years increasing sophistication in acoustic and navigation technology have resulted in more boats taking more fish over a wider area. As stocks have become depleted boats have exploited new ecosystems, the most notable of these are the vulnerable seamounts, fragile marine ecosystems that many believe will never recover from current fishing pressure. We may reasonably enquire of our fisheries managers how we have reached the point where many of the once vast fish stocks that sustained our forebears have been reduced, in just a few short decades, not just to commercial non-viability but in many cases to population levels where there is serious concern for species recovery.

To be fair to our fisheries managers, gathering accurate information on the population dynamics of any fish species is difficult. Much of the information they rely on comes from scientists using stock assessments based on biological sampling and total catch volumes. Accurate estimates of total catch numbers have been affected by under reporting of catch sizes and the obscenity of bycatch – the incidental catching of non target species that are thrown back into the sea dead. Conservative estimates are that bycatch amounts to a stunning 25% of the total catch volume. This has lead to uncertainty in stock estimates and antagonism and mistrust between the fishing fleets and fisheries management officials.

In defense of our fishermen, who have been subjected to national mesh size controls, species quotas, the total annual catch limits of the North East Atlantic Fisheries Commission and more latterly the European Union’s fleet contraction initiatives, they now view the fisheries management procedures over the last few decades as having largely failed. Commercial fish stocks continue to decline with knock on effects on those species further down and further up the food chain. The great irony is that unfettered marine environmental degradation will further negatively impact our already hard pressed local fishing economies to a point where the eternal striving to make a living from fishing, based on current unsustainable competition based economic models, will likely accelerate environmental deterioration in a difficult to break downward spiral.

Moving forward fishermen need and deserve our support and encouragement to see themselves increasingly as stakeholders in the marine environment. Joint custodians with the consumer, who acknowledge conservation at the ecosystem level and learn to accept sustainable exploitation at levels far below those of today. Politicians need to appreciate that the voting public requires long-term policies that support and complement our collective responsibility to the marine environment; policies that reflect the economic and social importance of sustainable fisheries resource use. Fisheries science, with all its limitations, needs to carry more weight with recommendations and subsequent decisions erring on the side of caution and sustainability. Retail outlets should slow the drive to supply the best quality at the cheapest price and consumers need to be prepared to pay a price for fresh fish, which includes the full cost of environmental protection within a “sufficient” economic growth model.

Some governments, like Thailand, are already exploring a move away from a conventional growth economy. They are investigating the viability of what they call a “sufficiency economy” where the focus is towards targeted growth through poverty reduction, monetary self-reliance and most importantly conservation of renewable resources, especially their marine resources.

We in West Cork may need to acknowledge that not all growth is good and that it frequently has a detrimental effect on the marine ecological systems on which our local economies and social well being depend so greatly. If more countries embraced the “sufficiency” economic model we might see a move away from the unsustainable and outdated belief that economic growth can be measured by infinite growth on a planet with finite resources. Left unchecked and fueled by wider environmental issues such as climate change and sea level rise we could see Ireland’s economic growth plummet catastrophically. Without doubt we risk a significant economic decline if unsustainable fisheries resource use is not addressed and reversed.

Were he alive today Pa would be both elated and subdued. Subdued because global estimates put two thirds of marine species in the category “depleted” or “at risk”. Elated because his belief in “sufficient growth economics” have finally come of age.


Cultural Identity or Political Expediency…

I was thumbing through the broadsheets a couple of Sunday’s ago and there it was, staring me in the face…Japan To Hunt Humpbacks – First time for over 40 years. Lacking any political guile my nine-year-old daughter asked. “Why do some countries still kill whales Dad and isn’t Boomerang a humpback?” Answering with rationality I did not feel I explained that it was deeply engrained in the cultural identity of some aboriginal people who currently kill whales and dolphins for food. During the last 200 years I explained, many countries killed the great whales largely for oil to light lamps in an age before electricity. This resulted in once vast whale stocks being reduced, in some cases like the humpback, to near extinction. Warming to my subject I relayed the story of Boomerang, a lone humpback whale who has these past few years, made an appearance off West Cork during the late summer months and entertained visitors with a stunning array of acrobatics. Tail lobbing and waving, fin slapping and breaches high out of the water. With no sightings from the boat during 2006 concerns for the animals safety were allayed when Boomerang, so called because he kept coming back, was spotted off the Waterford coast during this last summer.

As Charlotte’s eyes narrowed in concentration my mind drifted back to a small village called Hvalba on the Faroe Islands. During the early 1980’s I was on the southern island of Suduroy, talking to a group of Faroese teenagers about the local dolphin hunts, the grindadráp. I was torn between the tragic sight of dismembered, disembowled pilot whales lying in great slicks of their own blood and entrails whilst admiring the tenacity of these hardy and attractive people existing on these desolate North Atlantic islands. In the past, whale and dolphin meat was the difference between life and death to islanders during the long winter months. By the 1980’s much of the previous years meat was being discarded or fed to dogs come the Spring. The current years “harvest”, as they euphamistically called the slaughter, was consigned to cold storage and eaten infrequently, yet still the annual killing went on. As beer was ordered I asked, why in a society with freezers, fridges and frozen fish fingers do you still hunt the pilot whale and Atlantic white sided dolphin if it is not essential to your survival. After a second of what I perceived to be mild discomfort, a girl preparing to depart the islands to study economics in Copenhagen annouced that it was “not about what we need but about who we are” “Cultural identity” I said, trying to understand but with images still fresh in my mind of a video showing a Norwegian whaler firing a high powered rifle repeatedly into the eye of a still living minke whale as it thrashed at the side of his boat, a harpoon embedded deeply in it’s flank.

Nearly 30 years later as I munched thoughtfully on my nut crunchy, sugar coated, convenience breakfast cereal I pondered how little things had changed. Following the heady days soon after 1986 when a long overdue moratorium on commercial whaling was put in place by the International Whaling Commission, most IWC members and environmental activists unwillingly accepted that politically expedient caveat – “scientific” whaling. This permitted the killing of certain species of whale for so called research purposes, but not on the industrial scale of previous years. A caveat that to this day sees the meat obtained from whales killed for scientific research being sold on the open market in Iceland and Japan.

My two boys started squabbling over who was going to rebuild a Meccano toy that lay in pieces on the floor being chewed by the dogs… This reminded me of the arguments, recriminations and insults that were slung back and forth at the annual IWC meetings throughout the 1990’s about quotas – how many animals would be killed in the name of science? Previous whaling nations, whose burgeoning whale watching industries expanding at double figure rates annually, were beginning to demonstrate a sustainable method of exploiting whale populations commercially. An industry in its adolescence in Ireland but which may expand if we ensure the proper conservation initiatives are put in place to protect those species that visit Irish coastal waters. This demonstrated very clearly that people wanted to watch whales and dolphins in their natural environment and whale watching would bring much needed revenues and jobs to coastal communities. Above all you could watch the same whale many times but you could kill it only once. Whilst Iceland and Japan continued to take whales under the guise of scientific whaling, it was inconceivable that we would see a return to commercial whaling and the type of free-for-all exploitation that reduced many great whale species to population levels where they were threatened with extinction. Some species, like the Northern right whale have never recovered and may become functionally extinct within a decade or two as current world population numbers flounder at around 300 animals.

Much campaigner sweat and whale blood has passed under the bridge in the twenty years since the moratorium was put in place. Such were the machinations of the governments of Japan, Iceland and Norway which included buying pro-whaling votes within the IWC and unilaterally restarting commercial whaling, there was very real concern that these major whaling nations might achieve the three quarters majority in favour of commercial whaling needed to overturn the 20 year old moratorium. To date they have failed but with recent assistance from Denmark, who cast the deciding vote, they managed to table and get accepted, the widely discredited notion that whales were responsible for the decline in fish stocks around the world!

Frustrated by their inability to get their minority way Japan announced an increase in their minke whale kill under the guise of scientific whaling. Together with Norway and Iceland they will target over 2000 minke whales during the 2007/2008. More insidious is the move by Japan to flout the Convention for the Prevention of International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). As we breath their whaling ships head south to the southern ocean and their stated intention is to kill the endangered and charismatic humpback whale and the still threatened fin whale – the very same species that have been entertaining visitors and locals alike these past weeks lunge feeding off Toe Head.

The boys had rebuilt their Meccano toy and were eyeing me intently. Mindful of their attention span I abandoned all hope of a balanced argument and concluded. Pressure exerted by minority interest groups often cause governments to make decisions that will help to keep them in power. “You mean whales have to die because of pointless political posturing not cultural indemnity,” my daughter observed. Identity…I corrected.