How the whaling industry was beaten


The Last Whale
By Chris Pash
Fremantle Press, 2008, 218 pp, $29.95 (pb)

Willie the Whale expired in a good cause in 1977.

The 40-foot inflatable whale made his last stand against the whaling industry by being inflated on the eighth floor of the Lakeside Hotel in Canberra and wedging in the Japanese delegation to the International Whaling Commission (IWC), the whaling nations' club.

Willie ended his life at the point of a knife as hotel staff struggled to free the trapped Japanese.

Willie's creators, Project Jonah, then turned their attention to the sperm whales being hunted at Albany, on the southern coast of Western Australia, by the Cheynes Beach Whaling Company.

Australia was the last English-speaking country in the world to ban whaling. The company's 1977 shipment had a quota of 624 sperm whales.

To the Liberal WA premier, Charles Court, whales were just another resource to be harvested for profit. The spermaceti oil and whale by-products made the whaling company a gory half-million dollars profit a year.

Court accused those who wanted to shut down whaling of being Soviet stooges — Friends of the Earth in WA were said to be receiving "Moscow Gold". They mockingly replied, "if we're running on an annual budget of ten thousand dollars, the Kremlin's bloody ungenerous". FOE also opposed the Soviet Union's huge whaling fleets.

The hippie-inspired "Whale and Dolphin Coalition", and Greenpeace founder Bob Hunter from Canada, led the non-violent direct actions against whaling at Albany.

By the end of the campaign, opposition to whaling at Albany was so widespread that the Malcolm Fraser Liberal federal government, facing an election in 1977, made noises of opposition. However, it didn't use its powers to cancel the company's license.

Re-elected, Fraser felt enough public pressure to call an official enquiry into whaling at Albany.

Before the enquiry could make its report in late 1978, the whaling company announced it was closing down. The IWC had been forced to cut sperm whale catch quotas (down to zero for 1979) as they realised that the industry was hunting itself out of business.

The company could no longer make a profit from whaling. The anti-whaling campaigners had contributed decisively to the faltering dynamics of the Albany whaling industry.

The politicians and business leaders who had defended whaling as being all about jobs simply did nothing about the 100 Albany workers who were suddenly jobless.

The anti-whaling campaigners, by contrast, took the jobs issue seriously and advocated whale-watching tourism as an alternative source of employment (it is now a thriving industry).

Pash's book is journalistic rather than analytical and tends to foreground the influence of "The Phantom" (Jean-Paul Fortom-Gouin, a Panama-based anti-whaling millionaire "who wrote the big cheques") and the high-profile activists rather than the less spectacular, grassroots campaigning groups who did much of the broader organising.

Despite this, the lesson is clear — dirty industries can be replaced with cleaner, job-rich work through the efforts of committed activists building popular support for placing the planet, and people, before profits.