June 10 2015
Recollections of FOE and campaign to stop whaling 1976-78
The bike wheel had been so mangled it look like it could make one of those impossible skid marks you see on “Slippery When Wet” signs. For several years it hung on the wall of the Environment Centre of WA, captioned “In memory of three Friends of the Earth who ran into each other 25 km north of Albany, 26 January 1976”. It being my bike wheel, I remember that Australia Day much more clearly than my then lack of patriotic fervour would normally permit.
The three spectacularly-collapsing cyclists were part an 800 km return protest ride from Perth to Albany, port of Australia’s last whale-killing fleet. It was one of many actions undertaken by FOE until Australia stopped slaughtering whales in 1978.
FOE began in Australia in the year following the landmark 1972 UN Conference on the Human Environment at which the Great Whales became the unofficial symbol of humans estrangement from the planet. The initial concern over the plight of the whales came from population after population and species after species being hunted to commercial, and in a few cases actual extinction. However, as the campaign developed worldwide, this was profoundly buttressed through growing understanding of the majesty and intelligence of these extraordinary creatures.
The first time I heard the sounds on the radio I had know idea what they were, but the longer I listened I grew more convinced that their utterer was communicating in an incredibly complex way. Upon learning that it was a Humpback Whale I knew I had to do something to help whales swim free of human tyranny (Oh dear, not another one of those early 70s hippie conversion experiences!).
FOE established its whales campaign under the banner of Project Jonah. At quite an early stage it was recognised that there were some people passionately concerned about the plight of the whales who weren’t, unfortunately, in the least bit passionate about some of our other major campaigns, such as anti-uranium. The game plan was to establish Project Jonah as a separate single-issue group, while FOE would continue to work on the issue as part of its broad suite of campaigns. I acted as coordinator for a couple of years while that transition occurred.
Over the next few years we did all the things you’d expect in an activist campaign: picketing whaling nations’ consulates, dawn services outside the Albany whaling station, displays and (limited) dialogue in the Albany Town Hall, media, education, petitioning, lobbying, bike pranging and so on. By 1977/78 polls were showing around 90% of Australians opposed to whaling, although it was only about 50:50 in WA – a long way from vehement pro-whale sentiment there now.
The Fraser Government announced an Inquiry Into Whales and Whaling in 1978, and FOE was among the handful of official Major Parties to the Inquiry. Members of FOE Perth and then Chain Reaction Editor Barbara Hutton were there in Albany on the freezing opening day of the Inquiry when the whaling company announced it was going to shut down by the end of the year.
A major campaign goal achieved completely, hadn’t seen that happen much before 1978. We checked our pulses and finding them there (if racing) waited for the alarm to go off.
It got even better. FOE continued its active participation in the Inquiry as it moved to other cities, pursuing our other goals of declaration of a whale sanctuary within Australia’s territorial waters, a ban on importing whale products and for Australia to pursue with vigour the protection of whales internationally. The inquiry reported strongly along these lines and successive Australian Governments have adopted a pro-whale stance.
As witnessed at the recent International Whaling Commission meeting in Adelaide the last vestiges of the commercial whaling industry are being clung to tenaciously in Japan, Norway and the North Atlantic and the arguments seem to have changed not at all in 20 years. Distressing indeed, but I’m just optimistic enough to believe we can see the end of this industry from bygone centuries sometime in the next 20 years, although I fear it may be towards the end of that period.