Bookplates: The Whale Warriors

Bookplate reviews new(ish) food- and drink-related books.

The Whale Warriors by Peter Heller isn't, technically, a book about food, but it's a book anyone concerned about the sustainability of what we eat should read. Its subject is the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, an organization founded and led by Paul Watson, one of the original members of Greenpeace. (Legend has it Watson was kicked out of Greenpeace for being too aggressive, but Watson himself claims that he left because of a political dispute.)

Heller paints Watson as Captain Ahab in reverse, a conservationist determined to end whaling -- by himself, if necessary. Each year Heller and his crew of volunteers travel to the Antarctic Ocean on one of Sea Shepherd's vessels (the Farley Mowat, in this narrative) and attempt to find and then confront the Japanese whaling fleet.

The Japanese believe they have a legal mandate to conduct "lethal research" on various whale species. Watson argues that no research actually occurs. (In this, he isn't alone.) Although he receives no state sponsorship -- indeed, most nations and Greenpeace, to boot, view him as a nuisance, at best, and a pirate, at worst -- he believes that he is empowered by United Nations maritime law to stop illegal whaling. And by "stop," he doesn't mean drape banners across the whaling ships, as Greenpeace does. He means stop the whaling by physical means, such as dropping "prop foulers" in the water to render the ships essentially immobile.

What sounds like a Quixotic quest is anything but. Watson (pictured right) is notorious precisely because he has been successful in the past, confronting Japanese and Norwegian whalers as well as the slaughter of baby seals in Canada. During the expedition that Heller details (December 2005 through January 2006), Sea Shepherd, the Japanese and Greenpeace, which is also seeking the whaling fleet in the Antarctic, engage in a public-relations battle over the Internet and in the international press.

The Whale Warriors follows this expedition from its beginning in an Australian harbor to its end in stormy Antarctic waters. (How's that for a tease?) Heller was aboard the Farley Mowat the entire time, and he does a masterful job of balancing the journalistic details of this voyage with background -- sympathetic, but not fawning -- on Watson and his crewmembers and the larger issues that Watson's crusade raises.

Of course, you might be asking: Why the hell are the Japanese still whaling, after all? As Heller notes, very, very few Japanese eat whale meat anymore. (Where does the meat -- much of it loaded with dangerous heavy metals -- go? I won't ruin the surprise, but the answer is utterly shocking.) At any rate, Heller argues that it's politics that keeps the Japanese whaling fleet afloat: If Japan gave into the international community on whaling, its ability to resist controls on the fishing of other species will be weakened.

It's this larger issue that makes The Whale Warriors a necessary read. Whether or not you agree with Watson's methods -- concluding that he is a misguided lunatic isn't entirely out of the question, even if you support his larger aims -- you can't deny that he exposes the folly of international conservation laws. These laws mean nothing if no one enforces them, yet no one in a position of traditional authority seems very interested in enforcing them. Apply this to the more general problem of overfishing of the ocean species we eat, and the cause for concern is evident.

Frankly, if you eat seafood regularly, you must read this and a book I wrote about months ago, The End of the Line by Charles Clover. You'll never look at a menu or the fish counter in a supermarket the same way again.

-Ian Froeb

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