Whale killings 'crime of the 20th century'

An astonishing but little-known story about New Zealand whaling, labelled by some as one of the greatest environmental crimes of last century, is finally getting a public airing.

The widely believed myth is that the Perano family killed off the humpback whales around New Zealand during the 1950s and 60s when they hunted in the Cook Strait from Arapawa Island in the Marlborough Sounds.

The real story, well known now to researchers thanks to a brave Russian whistleblower, is that the Soviet Union slaughtered 25,000 of migrating humpbacks in the years before the population crash in the early 1960s.

"We were taking less than a handful, nothing really; it was the Soviets and the Japanese," says 75-year-old Peter Perano.

In a piece of bureaucratic madness, the Soviets, in order to meet production quotas set in Moscow, killed almost all the humpbacks in New Zealand's "Area IV" in the Southern Ocean. There is evidence New Zealand officials knew what was going on but were silent, Perano alleges.

The Soviets lied to the International Whaling Commission about the kill and it was only later, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, that scientists who knew the real numbers killed came forward.

One of them was Yuri Mikelov, who, with American researcher Phil Clapham, exposed the real numbers to the world. Perano met Mikelov in Auckland and told how he had kept the real data in a potato bin so the secret police, the KGB, would not find it.

Otago University masters in science communications student, Tess Brosnan, will premiere her film Whale Chasers in Picton this Friday. She has dedicated it to Mikelov and in it she recounts the story of the Soviet slaughter in the Southern Ocean which pushed the humpbacks to the brink of extinction.

US writer Charles Homans recently chronicled the Soviet deception in The Most Senseless Environmental Crime of the 20th Century relating how the Soviet whaling ship Slava sailed from Odessa into the Southern Ocean, first in 1946.

It had little success for several years. "Then, in 1957, the ship's crew discovered dense conglomerations of humpback whales to the north, off the coasts of Australia and New Zealand," Homans reports.

"There were so many of them, packed so close together, the Slava's helicopter pilots joked that they could make an emergency landing on the animals' backs."

Then the factory ship Sovetskaya Ukraina joined them. Soviet fleets killed almost 13,000 humpback whales in the 1959-60 season and nearly as many the next. Another ship, Yuriy Dolgorukiy, joined them and continued the plunder.

Then came the population crash. Scientist Alfred Berzin on Sovetskaya Rossiya filed a report to the state fisheries ministry: "In five years of intensive whaling by first one, then two, three, and finally four fleets," he wrote, the populations of humpback whales off the coasts of Australia and New Zealand "were so reduced in abundance that we can now say that they are completely destroyed!"

Perano, who now counts humpbacks for the Department of Conservation, says the humpbacks are returning, numbers have risen 50 per cent or more since whaling ended. He is perplexed by the Japanese insistence on continuing to kill whales in the Southern Ocean.

"I think it is nutty, what's the point?" he said. "It's not scientific, the only science they are learning is that they can still get away with it."

Japan has a whaling fleet in the Southern Ocean conducting what it terms scientific whaling, despite threats from the environment group Sea Shepherd, and International Court of Justice action by Australia and New Zealand.

"It is lot of old Japanese fellows who don't want to lose face."

Perano knows the economics of whaling; and the Japanese operation is a money-loser.

Whale Chasers screens at the Picton Little Theatre on Friday and Saturday and at the Tuatara Brewery in Paraparaumu on Monday.

Sunday Star Times