Brian Rudman 's Opinion

Brian Rudman is a NZ Herald feature writer and columnist.

Brian Rudman: Whales may be safe but let's not forget all the fish

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On behalf of the whales, I reckon the rest of us are entitled to raise a glass or two, writes Brian Rudman.
On behalf of the whales, I reckon the rest of us are entitled to raise a glass or two, writes Brian Rudman.

What to protest about, now the whales have finally been saved? We all felt sorry for these big lumbering, harmless, giants of the sea. But krill? Or sharks? They're not cuddly at all.

As Foreign Affairs Minister Murray McCully said yesterday, the Japanese whalers' bloody-minded persistence in killing these great leviathans in our backyard was deeply offensive to many New Zealanders. And I, for one, delighted in the piratical tactics of Pete Bethune and Paul Watson, the Sea Shepherd protesters who put their lives on the line in the freezing waters of the Antarctic to obstruct the "scientific" slaughterers.

The stereotypical "green" protester is supposed to be a meek and mild leaf-eater. Bethune and his mates were anything but, as they daringly played dodgems with the Japanese fleet. They were more your anti-Springbok tour front-liners confronting the baton-wielding Red Squad.

In the end, victory was pronounced this week at the International Court of Justice. But the way the Japanese whalers quickly capitulated suggests they've had enough with "scientific whaling" and the international opprobrium it attracts. For that, first Greenpeace and later Sea Shepherd, with its hard-nosed tactics, onboard cameras and slick PR, must take the credit. With, of course, the Australian and New Zealand governments which finally called the Japanese to account in the international court for continuing to kill whales, despite signing a 1986 moratorium against whaling.

Mr McCully is now warning against indulging in "triumphalism". He fears that if we denigrate the Japanese, this will hurt their national pride and encourage them to dig their heels in and devise a new "scientific" programme that better fits the definition than the one just laughed out of court.

On a government level, this is no doubt good diplomacy. But on behalf of the whales, I reckon the rest of us are entitled to raise a glass or two.

The Japanese are apparently very big on "saving face". But with warehouses full of unsold whale meat unable to be disposed of, you'd like to think this judgment is just the excuse needed, face or no face, for them to call an end to this long farce, and leave the whales in peace.

But at the rate we humans are "harvesting" other fish species, the whale population, as it slowly rebuilds its numbers, could find the seas an increasingly lonely place.

A United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation report on the state of world fisheries in 2012 notes that between 1950 and 1996, the annual world sea fish harvest increased from 16.8 million tonnes to 86.4 million tonnes before plateauing around 80 million tonnes. As a result, it isn't just the whales that need saving. The organisation says about 30 per cent of fish stocks are over-exploited and in need of strict management plans. Another 57.4 per cent are "fully exploited" with no further room for expansion in catch and at risk of decline unless properly managed.

It concluded: "The declining global marine catch over the last few years together with the increased percentage of over-exploited fish stocks and the decreased proportion of non-fully exploited species around the world convey the strong message that the state of world marine fisheries is worsening and has had a negative impact on fishery production.

"Over-exploitation not only causes negative ecological consequences, but it also reduces fish production, which further leads to negative social and economic consequences."

The report notes that adding to the problem is illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing.

"The international community is deeply frustrated by the failure of many flag states to meet their primary responsibilities under international law, which are to exercise effective control over their fishing vessels and ensure compliance with conservation and management measures."

In our part of the world, the UN body singles out orange roughy, oreo dories and silver gemfish as "ranging from fully exploited to over-exploited", and the southern bluefin tuna stock as "depleted". That's defined as "catches being well below historical levels, irrespective of the amount of fishing effort exerted". In other words, in deep trouble.

We're far from the worst culprits. The list of "depleted" or "over-exploited" species runs over five pages. The biggest problem is in the more populous areas of the world, in particular, the North Atlantic.

The report highlights that even with the rapid expansion of aquaculture, of marine reserves and quota systems, the cod, the herring, the haddock, the whiting, the geelbek croaker, the red steenbras, the blackfin icefish and assorted shrimps and prawns - to name just a few - urgently need a saviour or three.

Unfortunately for them, "Save the shrimp" doesn't have quite the same ring as "Save the whales".

- NZ Herald

Brian Rudman

Brian Rudman is a NZ Herald feature writer and columnist.

Brian Rudman's first news story was for Auckland University student paper Outspoke, exposing an SIS spy on campus during the heady days of the Vietnam War. It resulted in a Commission of Inquiry and an award for student journalist of the year. A stint editing the Labour Party's start-up Auckland newspaper NZ Statesman followed. Rudman decided journalism was the career for him, but the NZ Herald and Auckland Star thought otherwise when he came job-hunting. After a year on the "hippy trail" overland to London, he spent four years on Fleet St with various British provincial papers. He then joined the Auckland Star, winning the Dulux Journalist of the Year award for coverage of the 1976 Dawn Raids against Polynesian overstayers. He has also worked on the NZ Listener, Auckland Sun, and since 1996, for the NZ Herald as feature writer and columnist. He has a BA in History and Politics.

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