Greenpeace in Siberia

Pat Ohlendorf August 1 1983

Greenpeace in Siberia

Pat Ohlendorf August 1 1983

Greenpeace in Siberia


Pat Ohlendorf

For several days it was uncertain whether the latest Greenpeace venture would succeed in turning the world’s attention to the illegal killing of whales, or end as an unqualified fiasco. First, Soviet troops arrested six members of the unorthodox environmentalist group after the campaigners went ashore in Siberia to investigate suspected illegal whaling operations. Then another Greenpeacer, attempting to escape with exposed film in a motorized rubber raft, fell into the frigid Bering Sea, only to be rescued and detained by a Soviet helicopter crew. Another member of the group broke his ankle leaping into the spinning raft to retrieve the film. The 15 Greenpeacers still aboard the organization’s 150-foot converted fishing trawler, Rainbow Warrior, then braved challenges from Soviet helicopters and ships under orders to stop them and fled into U.S. waters, docking at the Alaskan port of Nome. At week’s end, the Soviets released the six Americans and one Canadian, Ron Precious, 35, of Vancouver, and Greenpeace proclaimed the venture a striking success. Declared Canadian director Patrick Moore: “We believe that this campaign will help hammer one of the last remaining nails into the coffin of the whaling industry.” Meanwhile, in Brighton, England, where the 40-nation International Whaling Commission (iwc) was meeting to discuss implementing a moratorium on whaling to begin in 1986, the

Soviet delegate dismissed the Greenpeace action as meaningless. But Greenpeace members were able to show delegates the hard-won film which the organization says is proof that the Soviets are breaking international whaling regulations. Greenpeace maintains that the Soviets are using whale meat not just as food for a local population that has eaten whales for centuries—a use which is permitted under regulations established last year—but also, illegally, as a food for fur-producing animals. The main purpose of the Rainbow Warrior’s incursion into the small Siberian coastal town of Lorino was to film the suspected illegal activities. “The most spectacular feature of the village was the mink cages up on a hillside,” reported the ship’s captain, Peter Willcox, in a radio-telephone interview with Maclean’s. “Actually, we are not sure they are mink—just that they are fur-bearing animals of some kind.”

In fact, the Siberian escapade was more a voyage of publicity than discovery. Two years ago a lesser-known group, the British-based Sea Shepherd Conservationist Society, had sailed into the same outpost and discovered essentially the same activity. Still, Moore said that Greenpeace’s intention was to shame the Soviets by directing public attention to the fact that “beyond any reasonable doubt” they were breaking the aboriginal consumption regulations. In addition, Greenpeacers hoped that their protest would encourage other nations to take stiff measures against all four countries that con-

tinued to defy whaling regulations—the U.S.S.R., Japan, Peru and Norway.

For all their criticism of the Soviet whaling activity, the Greenpeacers acknowledged one ironic element contributing to the success of their stunt—the restraint shown by the Soviet authorities. An idealistic adventure could have become a tragedy, but no one was seriously injured, and no one was held for long in custody. “I have nothing but compliments for the way they conducted themselves,” noted Willcox. “They could have opened fire and injured a lot of people and I am very glad that they chose not to.” But not surprisingly, the Soviets took some advantage of Greenpeace’s predicament, with the official news agency TASS decrying the group’s “irresponsible actions” and reporting that the protester who jumped into the sea would have drowned if the helicopter crew had not picked him up.

Controversy is not new to Greenpeace, which, since its beginnings in Vancouver 13 years ago, has grown into an international organization with roughly one million supporters. But last week’s adventure will be remembered for its daring. The Rainbow Warrior dispatched six of the crew to the beach in three 16-foot Zodiac inflatable rafts with outboard motors. There, they photographed the whaling station and the fur farm, and pressed leaflets into the hands of the few sleepy, nonplussed workers.

Ten minutes after the landing, however, a Soviet military truck appeared and soldiers quickly grabbed the six Greenpeacers, along with their film, cameras and rafts. Meanwhile, another group of soldiers headed out to the Rainbow Warrior by helicopter, and “we started steaming out from shore,” Willcox recounted. “About an hour later we met the first naval ship.” Crew member Jim Henry jumped into a Zodiac with four rolls of 16-mm movie film, which had been shot from within 350 feet of the beach, and he and the Rainbow Warrior took off in different directions. But after nearly an hour’s pursuit, “with a Soviet helicopter hovering five or 10 feet over his head,” according to Willcox, Henry fell into the water, sending the Zodiac off on its own with the film. As the Rainbow Warrior manoeuvred alongside the unmanned raft, crewman Bruce Abraham jumped in to retrieve the film, and broke his left ankle.

During the chase, the Soviets shot flares across the bow of the Rainbow Warrior and issued orders to stop over VHF radio. But the crew sped ahead, followed, according to Willcox, by “three or four helicopters, two Soviet warships, one or two speedboats and a merchant vessel.” Fifteen hours later the Greenpeace ship steamed into Nome. Later, Willcox said, “It may seem very

silly and foolhardy, some of the things we do, but I think it indicates that we really are committed to the issues we are involved with.”

Greenpeace also staged two other whaling protests last week. In Seattle, a group of 12 demonstrators tried, unsuccessfully, to block a Japanese freighter carrying fish products from entering the harbor, and at Le Havre, France, four Greenpeacers chained themselves to a Soviet passenger ship. The protests coincided with the Brighton conference of the IWC, an organization which was established by international treaty in 1946 to keep track of whale populations and set guidelines for the whaling industry. Last year, by a vote of 25 to 7, it passed a resolution to place a moratorium on all commercial whaling, to begin in 1986. Until then, the commission

will adjust quotas each year on the whale species still allowed for commercial whaling. For all that, the four dissenting whaling nations have, in effect, continued business as usual.

But last week Peru, one of the four, withdrew its objection to the moratorium. And, on the recommendation of Norwegian scientists, the commission ordered Norway to cut its catch of minke whales this year by a hefty 66 per cent, to 635 from 1,690. Although minke whales are not considered to be among the most endangered species, that was an important step, said Robert McManus, spokesman for the U.S. delegation. “Over the history of commercial whaling we have seen one species of whale after another driven to the brink of extinction,” he explained. Now that there are commercial bans on the endangered larger species such as the humpback

and blue whales, whalers are turning to the smaller species of whales. (Canada, which has done no whaling since 1972, withdrew from the commission in 1981. The United States has also stopped whaling, but it continues to play an active role in IWC affairs.)

The target of last week’s main protest, the Soviet Union, is not the largest killer of whales; the numbers vary from year to year but Japan is always at the top of the list. “But we have already gone after the Japanese several times,” explained Greenpeace’s Moore. “We felt that it would be easier for the Soviets to quit whaling than the Japanese, so we wanted to give them this extra push.”

Aboard the Rainbow Warrior,

Willcox acknowledged that the Greenpeace campaign is continuing even though the tide is turning against the whalers. “Whaling is a dying industry, there is no doubt about it,” he said. But Willcox shares the concerns of many environmentalists that there is still a dangerous number of the mammals being killed. Says Steven Price of the World Wildlife Fund of Canada: “The great whales may not outlast the industry. Whaling may in fact die only with the extinction of the great whales.”

The extent to which Greenpeace’s bold, often outrageous campaigns influence the private deliberations of bodies such as the IWC and government departments is difficult to determine. But working on the “untestable assumption,” as Greenpeace’s Moore puts it, “that changes in the deepest reaches of mass public consciousness eventu-

ally affect the decision-makers,” the organization intends to forge ahead on several fronts. As well as intensifying its protests against the dumping of nuclear wastes into the sea and the testing of nuclear weapons, the international board of directors has decided to home in on three other issues: acid rain in North America and Europe; the slaughter of kangaroos in Australia (which, Moore says, is “even worse than the Canadian seal hunt”) and the preservation of Antarctica. Still, the group will continue its antiwhaling campaign. “It is Greenpeace’s aim to see that whaling is stopped,” vowed Willcox. “We want the Russians, the Japanese and the Norwegians to know that we will take very strong actions against any country that defies the 1986 moratorium on commercial whaling.”