Skipper faces criminal charges for attending to stranded whale

Monday 17 December, 2012, 20:12, by The Black Fish

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The skipper of The Black Fish boat Zeno 1325, Wietse van der Werf, and another of The Black Fish crew face criminal charges after taking a medical team to a stranded humpback whale off the Dutch coast yesterday morning. In a controversial move, Dutch authorities had declared a state of emergency after a couple of failed attempts to rescue the whale, even though new rescue teams with independent experts were on their way to initiate a new rescue effort.

The rescue crew was stopped by maritime police and were forced to witness a botched euthanasia attempt by a vet from a Dutch dolphinarium. The Black Fish set sail on Sunday morning and managed to reach the sandbank with a medical team to inspect the condition of the animal. It was found to have died overnight. The way in which the authorities have responded to the stranding has angered many people across The Netherlands and is likely to act as a catalyst for a much needed protocol on how future strandings should be dealt with.

Update 14 March 2013: Dutch police announced their intention this morning to pursuing the criminal charges against our two crew members. The criminal case file has been filed with the Dutch public prosecutor. We expect to receive further details in the coming weeks and will keep everyone posted. A big thanks to everyone for their moral support! To be continued..

Skipper Wietse van der Werf at the stranded humpback which had died hours before

Skipper Wietse van der Werf at the stranded humpback which had died hours before

Photo by Nico Jankowski

Background on the stranding

The young male humpback whale had beached itself on a sandbank off the Dutch town of Den Helder on Wednesday. Researchers from the nearby environmental centre Ecomare started a rescue attempt and managed to get the animal back out into deeper water but the animal wasn't able to move out into open water. The next day the Dutch Lifeguards joined in a renewed attempt but a net that was attached to one of their boats broke and they were forced to call off their efforts without success. At this point perhaps more experienced cetacean experts should have been called upon to join in the rescue effort and two ships had already left the island of Terschelling to assist the rescue operations. This team, made up of local fishermen, cetaceans-experts and volunteers had successfully managed to get animals back into open water at previous strandings and was equipped to attempt a new rescue of the humpback, which by now had been named Johannes.

The humpback whale named Johannes, who died a few hours before this photo was taken

The humpback whale named Johannes, who died a few hours before this photo was taken. Photo by Nico Jankowski

State of emergency

While their ships steamed across the Wadden Sea to reach the site as soon as possible, the authorities announced that they were to declare a state of emergency in the area. The mayor of the island of Texel, under who's jurisdiction the location falls, took the decision to block all access to the site and have maritime police patrol the surrounding waters day and night. A state of emergency means that the area is totally off-limits, with either press, rescue teams or public being kept well away. Breaking these conditions can result in heavy fines, up to € 4.000 per individual entering the restricted zone.

Independent rescue team

With the new rescue team on its way from Terschelling, sent under the guidance of world-renowned marine life rehabilitation expert Lenie 't Hart, word got out that the Minister had ordered to euthanise the animal. It is thought that the advise for the decision came from the dolphinarium at Harderwijk, who in the past has been heavily criticised over its dealing with previous stranding cases, most notably that of orca Morgan. Many conservationists and marine life experts have in the past called on the Dutch authorities to break their cooperation with this business. The dolphinarium has shown to have certain commercial interests in previous stranding cases but many believe they also lack the necessary knowledge and experience to deal with these types of strandings professionally.

Dutch politician Marianne Thieme discussed the upcoming boat trip with Wietse van der Werf

Dutch politician Marianne Thieme discussed the upcoming boat trip with Wietse van der Werf. Photo by Lammert van Raan.

Botched euthanasia attempt

The minister approved a vet from the dolphinarium to euthanise the humpback, who arrived early evening on Friday. Men held down the animal and used large syringes to inject the animal. It is still unclear exactly as to what was injected and where but the rescue team that was still being kept away from the site by maritime police could clearly see the animal franticly flipping its tail, a clear sign it is in pain. After the procedure the animal was left to die, only for researchers to find him still to be alive in the morning. By now the animal had been severely manhandled and obviously in increasing pain. By Saturday afternoon the animal was still believed to be alive.

Independent observers

By this time The Black Fish was on its way from Amsterdam with the RIB boat Zeno 1325, which had been used in other actions earlier this year but was stored near Amsterdam. While the organisation works to stop illegal fishing practices that harm marine wildlife, we thought it could be beneficial to facilitate independent observers to visit the stranding site and witness the controversial situation, which by now had become major national news. The media relied heavily on sources within the dolphinarium and local council and we saw benefit in being able to establish what was going on from independent sources.

The Black Fish boat Zeno 1325 with Dutch MP Marianne Thieme on board.

The Black Fish boat Zeno 1325 with Dutch MP Marianne Thieme on board. Photo by Lammert van Raan.

Marianne Thieme

On Saturday late afternoon The Black Fish met up with Dutch parliamentary member Marianne Thieme, who wished to see the situation for herself. It was nightfall by the time we reached open sea and with a strong south-easterly wind and 2-3 meter waves, it was heavy going in our 6 meter RIB boat. Nevertheless we approached the sandbank and started looking for the animal. It was when we realised that even the maritime police had left the area, that we reconsidered our changes of realistically finding the animal's exact location, given the increasingly deteriorating weather conditions and complete darkness. On top of this, various sandbanks are scattered across this bit of ocean, where the Wadden Sea meets the North Sea. We decided to head back to shore and try again at first light.

Wietse van der Werf and member of the Dutch parliament Marianne Thieme after deteriorating weather conditions forced their early return.

Wietse van der Werf and member of the Dutch parliament Marianne Thieme after deteriorating weather conditions forced their early return. Photo by Nico Jankowski

Medical team

Very early the next morning we met with a medical team consisting of Andre van Gemmert of the marine life rehabilitation centre Zeehondencrèche Lenie 't Hart and independent cetacean researcher Laura Lauta van Aysma to go and examine the condition of the animal. We left in darkness but by the time we approached the sandbank, first light made navigation a lot easier than the night before. The medical team walked onto the sandbank and inspected the animal. They found that Johannes had died overnight. This was the first confirmation of the animal's death, which spread through the media very quickly.

Andre van Gemmert and Laura Lauta van Aysma inspect the humpback and conclude it had died overnight.

Andre van Gemmert and Laura Lauta van Aysma inspect the humpback and conclude it had died overnight. Photo by Nico Jankowski

Samples

Further research found that the animal had been hurt in various places. Some obviously due to its stranding but others that seemed human-inflicted. Large holes were found on the animal's back, indicating that skin samples had been taken. It's tail and fins also showed various scars and some larger areas where the skin was missing. While it is unclear at this stage when the skin samples would have been taken exactly, it does raise concerns that this could have been done soon after the botched euthanasia attempt, meaning the humpback would have been heavily sedated but possibly still alive.

SMarkings on the body of the whale, which indicate samples might have been taken

Markings on the body of the whale, which indicate samples might have been taken. Photo by Nico Jankowski

Criminal charges

When we were on the sandbank and ready to leave, the police approached with a fast boat and a helicopter hovered above. The officers were very kind and expressed sympathy for our effort but nevertheless informed us that we were in breach of the state of emergency. Our details were taken and after some of us helped them push their police boat out of the sand, we both headed back to shore. Today we contacted the officers again and were informed that an official report has been filed, meaning that we are likely to face criminal charges, unless the public prosecutor drops the case. The mayor of Texel, who ordered the state of emergency also has a say in the case. With many controversies surrounding her actions in the last days, it seems unlikely she will pardon us for our actions.

Mayor of Texel

Francine Giskes, the mayor of Texel, has sparked a series of controversies in the way she has dealt with the stranding situation. She was one of the first to publicly call for the animal to be euthanised. She was quoted as saying 'sometimes the best thing to do is nothing', hinting at the option of letting the animal 'die in peace'. 3 days after she made this statement, the animal was still alive. She then proceeded to order a state of emergency while rescue teams were still underway to initiate a new rescue attempt. Using her powers in this way has angered many people in The Netherlands.

Public broadcaster NOS reported that one of their camera men, who had visited the stranding site, was paid a visit by Giskes. She demanded to see the footage and told the journalist what could be aired and what should be left out. She argued that she was keen to ensure the media gave a good impression of the situation but the move has been widely condemned by journalists. A producer at NOS news reminded Giskes in an interview this afternoon that she "was in North Holland, not in North Korea".

World-renowned marine activist Lenie 't Hart, who has supervised many successful releases of seals as well as cetaceans. Lenie has voiced strong criticism for the actions of the mayor of Texel.

World-renowned marine activist Lenie 't Hart, who has supervised many successful releases of seals as well as cetaceans. Lenie has voiced strong criticism for the actions of the mayor of Texel. Photo by Christian Molter

Looking to the future

All the parties involved in the incidents of the last week agree on one thing: never again should a stranding be dealt with in this way. The Black Fish joined forces with the organisations Zeehondencrèche Lenie 't Hart and Sea Shepherd Netherlands this morning, calling in a shared statement for a protocol to be drawn up, clearly outlining how the expertise and equipment can be utilised to respond to strandings better in future. Together with parliamentary member Marianne Thieme we have called on the responsible Minister Henk Kamp to draw up this plan. He was very quick to respond, stating this afternoon that he agrees with our wishes and will initiate new legislation and avoid similar mistakes being made in future.

The Black Fish is now working closely with Zeehondencrèche Lenie 't Hart, Sea Shepherd Nederland and Marianne Thieme of the Party for the Animals to ensure independent expertise will be allowed into the process of drawing up the new protocol. We believe for example that the knowledge and experience in countries such as Australia and New Zealand on this subject can be very beneficial for the Dutch authorities to learn from. We will keep everyone posted as good as possible on our progress. Follow us through Twitter and Facebook for the latest updates.