Saturday, 14 November 2015

Captain Paul Watson's Moral Compass Loses Its Way

Paul Watson standing in front of the renamed Sea Shepherd Vessel the Steve Irwin. It is ironic that Steve Irwin was not only a conservationist but a zoo owner and his daughter, Bindi Irwin, is now an ambassador for SeaWorld.

"Actually oceanariums are in many ways are victims of their own success. They educated the public so well about dolphins, whales, and other marine life that a public that didn't care a fig about these animals [...] Unfortunately this compassion for whales and dolphins is not harnessed as a force against the killing industry, but is instead turned against the teacher. Paul Watson, 1995"
Many might be aware of the activities of the conservation organisation Sea Shepherd and its controversial founder Paul Watson. In recent years, Sea Shepherd seems to have lost its way and has drifted into the realms of animal-rights. Rather than just opposing the killing of whales and dolphins in whaling and drive fisheries, in such countries as Japan and the Faroe Isles, they have moved their sites to attacking the maintenance of whales and dolphins in captivity.

In a recent commentary on their website Paul Watson decries the death of a killer whale at the Marineland in Antibes, France. The whale called Valentin died some time after a serious flooding incident that seriously affected not only the marine park but also the surrounding area and involved the death of at least 19 people.

Watson berates the death and  - without any supporting evidence - makes the statement that it was the flooding that killed this animal due to the ingress of contaminated water into the killer whale exhibit. In actual fact, the post-mortem revealed that the animal died of a twisted gut (torsion) which veterinarians believe is unrelated to the flooding incident. The other whales in the same exhibit remain at the time of writing healthy and well.  He also blames Marineland for being built on a floodplain. Although, during its 45 years of existence this is the worst flooding experienced by this facility. Moreover, as stated, this didn't just affect the park but the large area surrounding it.

Watson finishes his polemic in a predictable way with the now familiar rhetoric and unrealistic aspiration that:
"Marineland must be shut down and the animals rehabilitated and released to the wild [...] These tanks must be emptied and these facilities shut down. Marineland, SeaWorld and other cetacean prisons around the world are a disgrace to humanity and an ongoing ordeal of suffering for hundreds of animals denied their rights to be free and to live a full and productive life..."
This is of course a totally unrealistic objective for many and various reasons. The first of which is that all the killer whales at Marineland (including the recently deceased Valentin) were all born in captivity and have never been in the wild – as is the case for the vast majority of the 50+ killer whales currently displayed around the world in zoological collections.

Further, as the well-known failed release of the wild caught killer whale Keiko demonstrated,  that even with wild caught animals such endeavours are highly risky and likely to not only be hugely costly but also inevitably not successful. It is interesting to note that this fact has also now been accepted by Jean-Michel Cousteau whose organisation Ocean Futures were directly involved in the Keiko experimental release. 

Interestingly, this hasn't always been Paul Watson's position regarding whales and dolphins is in captivity. In a commentary in the June edition of animal people magazine in 1995 entitled The Cult of Animal Celebrity his position was very different.

Watson makes the very good point that:
"Not all facilities holding marine animals are the enemy. And the huge sums raised to free a few individuals could be more positively directed toward ending the slaughter of hundreds of thousands of nameless whales, dolphins, and seals on the world's oceans"
He goes on to say something that many believe are truisms when it comes to the public's changed perception over the years regarding whales and dolphins.
"Actually oceanariums are in many ways are victims of their own success. They educated the public so well about dolphins, whales, and other marine life that a public that didn't care a fig about these animals before 20 years ago now cares a great deal. Unfortunately this compassion for whales and dolphins is not harnessed as a force against the killing industry, but is instead turned against the teacher."
His final statement here is indeed very ironic because Watson is now engaging in the very behaviour he rightly criticises in this cited article.

In the closing passage of this article he makes a judgement that many feel is not without truth.
"There are hundreds of dolphins held in tanks around the world. There are millions whose numbers diminished daily in the world's largest human controlled killing tank of all: the ocean. If we don't hold the wanton killing in the wild, the only place dolphins will survive will be in captive facilities." 

So why has Watson apparently changed his mind completely regarding the captive care of whales and dolphins? Certainly, the situation for these animals in the wild has not really changed substantially. Animals are still being killed as is graphically shown in documentaries.  Watson's own efforts to highlight the drive fishery killings in Japan have failed to have little impact on the continuation of these hunts.

What seems to be happening is that Watson and others have decided that there might be a more lucrative return in targeting the small numbers of animals that are currently being caught in the Japanese drive fisheries for display in aquaria as this would generate better publicity and more public donations. The fact that these operations (which run in tandem within the drive hunt) have only been going on for decades compared with the hundreds of years history of the drive hunts seems unimportant.

This fact became very clear with the release of the 2009 documentary The Cove. Whilst this film was very successful one criticism of its presentation was the overemphasis of the role of the live capture of dolphins in the drive hunt against the slaughter of the majority of the animals.  This of course comes as no surprise as the main protagonist featured in this documentary was the former dolphin trainer now animal-rights activist Ric O'Barry.

Whilst, there seems to be a considerable amount of common ground between the animal-rights lobby and the zoological community regarding the use of drive fisheries for the acquisition of animals for captive display.  It should be noted that the USA and mainland European zoological collections now exclusively use self-sustaining captive breeding for the acquisition of display animals and not wild capture.  Unfortunately, opinions about the role that the captive display of whales and dolphins can positively provide in awareness to the protection and conservation of their wild counterparts seems to have been polarised. 

Sadly and ultimately the only ones that will suffer from this consequence will be wild dolphins, whales and the marine environment.  A situation recognised by Paul Watson in 1995 but seemingly now lost .

Further reading and links