Take Heart – What the Campaign to Stop Commercial Whaling Has Taught Me

by Richard Page, RISE UP Campaign Director.

Almost three million whales were killed for their oil and meat in the 20th century, bringing many species to the brink of extinction.

Meeting at this hotel on the 23rd July 1982, the International Whaling Commission (IWC) agreed a global ban on commercial whaling. The ban remains in place today and is hailed as one of the most significant conservation victories of all time. However, whales still face many threats caused by human activities.

This plaque commemorates the 40th anniversary of the ban and underlines the ongoing commitment of the United Kingdom to the conservation and welfare of whales, and to the future of the IWC.

So reads the text of a small plaque unveiled last Monday in the Metropole Hotel which is situated on the Brighton seafront in the United Kingdom.

I was one of a number of campaigners who have worked or are working to protect whales and other cetaceans (dolphins and porpoises) who were invited by Wildlife and Countryside Link to join the UK’s IWC Commissioner, various government officials and local Green MP, Caroline Lucas, in the celebration of one of the most important victories in global ocean protection.

While I know I might not look old enough – I jest – I like to think I helped in a miniscule but meaningful way to help secure the whale moratorium and a little more substantially in ensuring its implementation and in highlighting the wider threats to whales.

Whales are the creatures that sparked my fascination with marine life and joining the campaign to stop their extirpation was my entry point to several decades spent campaigning to restore ocean health.

The fascination began with the films of Jacques Cousteau and the voyages of the Calypso. Cousteau was a French naval officer who co-invented the first open-circuit SCUBA set and was a pioneer of underwater documentaries. The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau, his television series that ran from 1966 to 1976, was thrilling to watch and inspired me to spend hours drawing and painting pictures of the fascinating undersea world.

I was 10 years old in 1973 when I was given Oasis in Space, a book packed with photos in which Cousteau presented, in a manner easy for a young person to understand, his world view which very clearly and rightly put the ocean as the source of life on Earth. That same year saw the airing of an episode of The Undersea World of Jacques CousteauThe Singing Whale – which was to have a profound effect on me. The film, which focused on the most playful of the great whales, the humpback, gave me not only a sense of wonder for these mysterious animals but also exposed me to the scale, waste and brutalism of the commercial whaling industry. Suffice to say that film, and some subsequent images that I saw in a copy of National Geographic, shocked me to the core and as soon as I became aware of the ‘Save The Whale’ campaign I was a supporter and sported a button badge to indicate my view.

Greenpeace Zodiac with film crew disrupts the transfer of whales from a harpoon ship to the Russian factory ship Dalniy Vostok in the North Pacific in 1975 © Greenpeace / Rex Weyler

However, having a view is one thing but doing something about it is something else. What turned me into an activist was seeing the grainy footage of some courageous and severely under-equipped (no lifejackets!) activists in a flimsy Zodiac confronting Soviet whalers in the North Pacific in 1975. This was the first time I’d heard of Greenpeace and I was astounded at what that these people were prepared to do to protect the whales. When the Soviets fired a harpoon over the heads of Robert Hunter and George Korotva, the harpoon cable lashing not five feet away from them, I knew this was something else. There was no doubt in my mind that I was on the side of these latter-day Davids pitching themselves against the Goliaths of the whale catchers and factory ships, emblems of the human war against nature and that one day I would be with them.

Spike Milligan at Save The Whale rally in London’s Hyde Park 1981

My own first contribution to the global campaign to end commercial whaling was rather more modest: in 1981, when volunteering at Friends of the Earth, I helped with the organisation of a rally in Hyde Park where there was star support not only from an inflatable whale but also from actor, Joanna Lumley, and comic genius, Spike Milligan. It’s a long time ago but it all came back to life when talking about the rally to friend and colleague, Sue Fisher, prior to the unveiling of the plaque and she kindly emailed me a photo of Spike on stage which she’d found when putting together an exhibition for the event. The photographer at the rally must have been standing right next to me on that day because it is exactly the picture I have held in my memory down the years.

It was some years before I would actually rock-up at Canonbury Villas – Greenpeace UK’s HQ – but by then, not only did I have an ecology degree, but also, and perhaps more importantly, I had some experience of grassroots campaigning and non-violent direct action from my involvement in efforts to rid the UK of Cruise nuclear missiles. Within weeks, I had been arrested for having chained myself inside Norway House as part of a protest against Norway’s continuing disregard for the ban.  In the years that followed, I became increasingly involved the campaign to stop whaling and while my proudest moment was being in a RHIB positioned in front of a Norwegian whaler, dodging the shackles being chucked at us, as a minke whale, likely female and pregnant, made her getaway, I learned that actions such as these were only part of the means for achieving long-lasting change.

The anti-whaling campaign taught me much about campaign strategy and how public campaigning is the key lever to achieving political change. John Frizell, who had joined the organisation in 1976 and led the international campaign for decades, tutored me in the intricacies of the regulations enshrined in the whaling convention and the history and dynamics of the IWC. Crucially, I learned from his analytical skills and how in global fora such as the IWC and the Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species where decisions are made on voting, it is important to keep one’s eyes on the numbers. I learned about respecting cultural differences and tailoring messages for different audiences, noting how a message that resonated in one country might have the reverse effect in another. Through the anti-whaling campaign, I had my first experiences of corporate and market campaigning and was pleased to help colleagues from the Environmental Investigation Agency persuade a Japanese supermarket from selling cetacean products. The value of strong investigative work was evident as we confronted vote buying of several nations from the east Caribbean by Japan.

Richard Page with John Frizell and his wife, Michi

My participation in the anti-whaling campaign provided a rounded education, teaching me many lessons in addition to those sketched above, all of which were to stand me in good stead in my later campaigning life. Most of all it taught me the importance of persistence: securing the whaling moratorium was only part of the battle, ensuring its implementation required a deeper commitment.

Over the decades since the moratorium came into effect, some whale populations have begun to rebuild but many are nowhere near their pre-exploitation levels and unfortunately all cetacean species face a wide range of anthropogenic threats some of which harm them directly and others indirectly. Increasing numbers of whales and dolphins are struck by vessels, entangled in fishing gear and harmed by eating plastic. Less visible but no less insidious, cetaceans lose critical habitat as a consequence of climate change, and their feeding and communication are disrupted by increasing levels of underwater noise – forcing them to alter or extend migrations to find food and mates. Meanwhile, chemical pollution compromises their immune and reproductive systems. The situation is so dire that, of the 90 species, 12 subspecies and 28 subpopulations of cetaceans that have been identified and assessed by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), 22 are listed as ‘Critically Endangered’, 22 as ‘Endangered’, and 16 as ‘Vulnerable’.

All of this points to the need to gain traction on the whole suite of goals and actions enshrined in the RISE UP Blue Call to Action. Nothing less than transformative change will restore ocean health and secure the future of the world’s cetaceans and other marine life. The IWC, set up originally as a whalers’ club, has over the years broadened its conservation and welfare agenda. This now needs to evolve to meet the challenges faced by cetacean populations around the world stressed by the ocean and climate crises.

As the global body with the responsibility for cetaceans, the IWC with its strong legal basis, global reach and established mandate to implement a bold international conservation agenda, must be transformed so that it sits at the centre of global, regional and local efforts to ensure the recovery and health of all cetacean populations, safeguard their welfare and maximise their ecological contributions to a healthy ocean. For this to happen, the IWC needs to adopt a 50-year vision along the lines set out in this forward-looking paper supported by more than 50 organisations from 18 countries, many of which have endorsed RISE UP’s holistic agenda.

For the whales to be truly saved, we need to restore the health of the entire ocean, a leviathan task perhaps, but as the anti-whaling campaign proved, with sufficient will and the commitment it is indeed possible to make a difference and change the world.

This is a guest blog and may not necessarily represent the views of other RISE UP network members or RISE UP as a whole. It is only through open dialogue and a diversity of ideas that we will arrive at the solutions necessary to restore Ocean health.

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Date Published: 27th July 2022