Eavesdropping on Controversy

This article is about whaling; written by a retired skipper of a fishing vessel. There are only about ten countries in the world who still hunt whales for food. Norway is one of them, although they usually only catch around half of their quota. There are also those who actively campaign against the practice of whaling. For his part, this skipper has constantly been aware that there are two sides to every story. This article is historical and is recalled in order to make us think about this issue.

Having fished in Norwegian waters for a large part of my fishing life, we often came into contact with Norwegian fishermen and also with their very efficient Coast Guard, the Kystvakten. The fishermen rarely spoke at sea unless they had to, but they were never a problem. The Kystvakten however had a way of making you feel anxious when they came on board, even though you knew you had committed no offence. It may have been because they were the maritime military part of the Royal Norwegian Navy and very official. Never too friendly, simply super-efficient, and when they were finished checking your gear, your catch and your logbook, before the officer in charge left he would shake your hand, and say “Well done skipper, thank you”, and that’s when you breathed a huge sigh of relief. Strict but fair. But you also knew you could be boarded by the same vessel the following trip.

The Kystvakten’s responsibility encompasses fisheries inspection, customs enforcement, border control, search and rescue, shipping inspection, environmental protection and law enforcement, and an event relating to the latter two over 30 years ago, has continued to pray on this skipper’s mind to this day.

On one trip, in the late 1980s, we were fishing in an area called the East Boulders, about 60 miles from the Norwegian coast, when we heard Norwegian and English voices. A Norwegian boat had caught a whale and a marine conservation vessel, ‘Spoiler’, had been harassing the fishermen for some time and managed to cut their gear and free the whale, although it was trailing about a mile of line behind it. The skipper had called ashore to his office, who had contacted the Kystvakten and they arrived on the scene.

They ordered the ‘Spoiler’ to stop engines as they would be sending across a boarding party. Negotiations took place for about an hour and the conservation vessel was ordered to make for Stavanger. Her skipper said they could not comply as they had disabled their engines. The captain of the Kystvakten ship immediately sent across another two boarding parties, fully armed and took control of the ‘Spoiler’, rigged up a tow line and made for Stavanger.

Stavanger has two harbours, one further east near the town centre where the Port Control office is situated, and the other used mainly for merchant shipping and oil related work, to the west side.

The rest of the events were told to me by my agent in Egersund a few weeks later:

During the tow, the Kystvakten Captain was in constant radio contact with Norwegian authorities and it was decided to take the ‘Spoiler’ to a berth near the Port Control. Prior to this decision and before being relieved of his command, the skipper of the conservation vessel radioed ashore to his headquarters informing them that they had been arrested and were being taken in tow to Stavanger. The publicity process was set in train with the media being informed of the events and where they would be berthing. For them, this was a story of major import.

The next morning, all media groups were directed to the Port Control area. The road to the west harbour had been blocked off by police the night before, and the ‘Spoiler’ was towed to a quiet berth there in the darkness of the early hours. No massive publicity, no journalist interviews, only a twenty-four-hour armed guard around the vessel until a substantial fine had been paid, and she was released a few days later.

Reflecting on the above events and always trying to be fair minded, I tend to think the conservationists do have a point to their actions, but there are other times when I think that these actions are not going to help what is a more complicated situation than they perhaps first thought. During the conversation that took place between the ‘Spoiler’ and the Kystvakten prior to the tow, I was struck by a comment from the Norwegian captain.

“You have illegally damaged gear belonging to a Norwegian fisherman in Norwegian waters. You have cut away a whale with a large amount of line trailing behind it, and it is unlikely it will survive for long. This fishing boat has a legal right to catch his quota of whales, and he will now repair his gear and continue to fish. Which means because of your actions today, he will look for another whale, legally. Your actions have killed two whales instead of one.”

A Thoughtful Skipper.

Currently listening to: Letter to You by Bruce Springsteen.