Helped to lead campaigns against dolphin captivity & Taiji massacres, & for dolphin-safe tuna & freeing Keiko
Mark Ira Berman, 63, the primary spokesperson for Earth Island Institute on marine mammal issues since 1991, died on May 13, 2016.
E-mailed Mark J. Palmer, an Earth Island Institute colleague for more than 25 years, “Mark had chronic intestinal ailments over the years, and unexpectedly needed surgery on Wednesday (May 11, 2016). A series of post-operative complications compromised his lungs. The inability of his lungs to adequately oxygenate his blood led to cascading shutdowns of his major organs. Despite every effort by Mark’s doctors, he was not able to survive.
How Berman became The Bermanator
“Mark dedicated his life to helping whales and dolphins, and elephants and sharks as well,” Palmer recalled, “with particular emphasis on opposing captivity for these wonderful animals. Mark’s intense work ethic, numerous phone calls, and dogged determination led to his nickname of The Bermanator, a title that made him smile.”
The Bermanator nickname was reputedly conferred by the late Performing Animal Welfare Society founder Pat Derby (1944-2013), with whom Berman worked in campaigns against elephant and dolphin captivity at the former Marine World Africa USA theme park in Vallejo, California.
“Without Mark,” continued Palmer, Earth Island Institute “never would have taken on the historic Keiko effort,” which brought the release of the orca star of the Free Willy! film trilogy in 2002 for the last 15 years of his life, after a ten-year campaign and the expenditure of $20 million.
Berman “was part of every facet of Keiko’s odyssey from Mexico to Oregon to Iceland to Norway,” Palmer recalled. “He had still been sending out Keiko packets to children up to his last days.
Solomons & “Dolphin Safe”
“Mark also worked closely with Lawrence Makili,” the Earth Island Institute in the Solomon Islands, Palmer said, “to negotiate a successful end to dolphin hunts.
“Mark served as director of our International Dolphin Safe Tuna Monitoring Program,” Palmer added, in which role “He traveled tirelessly, especially in Asia, to monitor canneries, and oversee our monitoring in other parts of the globe. Under his watch, our Dolphin Safe program has grown to include more than 550 tuna companies around the world,” in fifteen nations, “all pledged to fish for tuna in ways that do not harm dolphins.”
Raised in the South during the 1960s, Berman recalled to ANIMALS 24-7 editor Merritt Clifton at the January 2014 Asia for Animals conference in Singapore that his father was a clothier who prospered by serving customers of African descent when other local merchants would not.
Berman said he had witnessed much that he had only years later realized was significant in the history of the civil rights movement, and “as a somewhat dark-skinned Jewish kid who could be mistaken for part black,” had experienced discrimination and racial segregation himself, including on occasions when he thought it was safer to be believed to be black, among black childhood friends, than to isolate himself by admitting to being Caucasian and Jewish.
Berman acknowledged that his childhood experience in the South had undoubtedly influenced his later work on behalf of captive wildlife, but added that he had only relatively recently begun to think about it. By his mid-teens, Berman said, his family had relocated to New England, and he thought then mostly about the same things that other teens thought and talked about.
Earning a bachelor of science degree from Central Connecticut State University in 1975, Berman became involved in marine mammal advocacy as volunteer spokesperson for the South Carolina Association for Marine Mammal Protection.
Incorporated in February 1990, the South Carolina Association for Marine Mammal Protection was organized to oppose a scheme floated by Marine Animal Productions founder Mobashir Solangi, of Gulfport, Mississippi, to invest $51 million in developing a marine mammal park and entertainment complex in Myrtle Beach.
But Tom Davis, principal financier of the project, shut it down in August 1990, just a week ahead of a scheduled ground-breaking ceremony.
“Events of the last few weeks,” said Davis, “including the crisis in the Middle East,” where the Persian Gulf War had just started, “are having an effect on lenders that only tightens an already difficult financial market.”
Won anti-captivity law
Claiming credit for the shutdown, after six months of petitioning and lobbying, Berman used the campaign momentum to win passage of a 1992 South Carolina state law, the only such law in any U.S. state, which in original form prohibited “the display of dolphins and porpoises.”
The law was expanded in 2000 to prohibit the display of any marine mammals.
“But in 2001 the wording of the law was changed from ‘marine mammals’ to ‘cetaceans,’ or dolphins and whales,” blogged Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Bo Peterson of the Charleston Post & Courier, “because Riverbanks Zoo in Columbia plans a sea lion exhibit. That revision raises some concern.”
Pledged Berman, ““We will work very hard to defend the law if there is any attempt to change it further.”
Earth Island Institute
Late in 1991 the Earth Island Institute’s International Marine Mammal Project hired Berman, chiefly to administrate the Dolphin Safe program. Begun by Earth Island Institute founding director David Phillips in 1977, the Dolphin Safe campaign gained momentum more than a decade later after marine biologist Sam LaBudde took a job as cook on a tuna boat and obtained dramatic video of dolphins dying in nets set to catch tuna.
“The video of dolphins drowning in the nets inspired a consumer boycott and a federal law setting standards for companies wanting to use a ‘dolphin safe’ label,” recalled Newsweek in 2002. “In 1991 activist Brenda Killian,” then employed by Earth Island Institute, “exposed a Thai supplier of ‘dolphin deadly’ tuna to Bumble Bee, one of the big three U.S. canners, and wound up in a TV debate on Good Morning America with the company president. To everyone’s surprise, he admitted that Killian was right, and soon invited Earth Island to monitor the company’s operations.”
“De facto global regulator”
Continued Newsweek, “Earth Island Institute has become a de facto global regulator of the $2 billion-a-year canned-tuna industry. Its 14 monitors track tuna fishermen worldwide for ‘dolphin safe’ practices, and woe to those who are caught with so much as one dolphin in their nets.”
Said Berman, “If one of these major companies cheated, all we would have to do is run a couple of full-page ads, and sales would fall.”
Six tuna fishing boats belonging to U.S. companies with Earth Island Institute “dolphin-safe” certification were in August 2013 fined $1.5 million by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, causing the Campaign for Eco-Safe Tuna, a front for the Mexican tuna industry, to denounce the Dolphin Safe campaign for an alleged “inexcusable failure to protect marine mammals.”
Continuing to net tuna “on dolphin,” Mexican tuna fishers have litigated and lobbied against the U.S. “dolphin-safe” standard, and Earth Island Institute enforcement of it, for as long as it has existed.
Ric O’Barry, the former Miami Seaqarium and Flipper television show dolphin trainer who turned dolphin freedom advocate on Earth Day 1970, in December 2014 issued a much more serious critique of the “dolphin-safe” program, summarized by ANIMALS 24-7 under the headline Fundraising, FADS, “dolphin safe,” & why Ric O’Barry left Earth Island Institute.
Countered Berman, “Dolphin Safe under Earth Island Institute has proven to save literally millions of dolphins since 1990. Floating aggregating devices,” used by the U.S. tuna fleet, “are not killing dolphins,” Berman claimed. “The tuna fisheries in the Eastern Pacific that set nets on dolphins, mainly [those of] Mexico and Venezuela are responsible for mortality.”
But the Inter-American Tropical Tuna Commission, a 21-nation organization established by international treaty to be “responsible for the conservation and management of tuna and other marine resources in the eastern Pacific Ocean,” contends that netting tuna around floating aggregating devices kills magnitudes of order more non-target sharks, other fish species, and sea turtles, even if this practice spares dolphins.
Berman and O’Barry had a long and often conflicted history.
Berman in an April 21, 1993 op-ed column for the Vallejo Times-Herald was among the first to expose and denounce the dolphin round-ups and slaughters in Taiji, Japan. Berman’s exposé followed others by Japanese activist Sakae Hemmi, U.S. film maker Hardin Jones, O’Barry, Dexter Cate, and Steve Sipman, who is often credited with the first “Animal Liberation Front” in the U.S. in connection with releasing two dolphins from a Hawaiian laboratory in 1976, but has assured ANIMALS 24-7, “I never had anything to do with the ALF.”
But Berman may have been the first to expose how, as he wrote, the killers “actually market these animals to captive facilities in advance through a broker in Tokyo. Orders for the species, sex, size, and age are taken. At the time of the roundup, specific animals are herded into a holding area while the remainder are slaughtered without any opposition from the captive display industry.
“This entire commercial operation is shrouded in secrecy,” Berman charged, “and is perpetuated by those who profit from the slaughter as a means to acquire whales and dolphins.”
Years later, Berman helped O’Barry and director Louie Psihoyos to produce and publicize The Cove, the 2009 Oscar-winning documentary showing the dolphin killing, the role of captivity industry money in perpetuating it, and O’Barry’s long campaign against it.
Before that, though, O’Barry and Berman clashed after Earth Island Institute took up the campaign to free Keiko. While Berman and David Phillips in 1994 formed the Free Willy Keiko Foundation, O’Barry warned that Keiko was far too habituated to people to easily succeed in the wild.
But O ‘Barry at the same time named many other captive whales and dolphins whom he believed should be set free. Among them were two dolphins kept at a Florida facility called the Ocean Reef Club, and several U.S. Navy-trained dolphins who were soon to be sold as surplus.
O’Barry believed the Navy dolphins might be especially promising release candidates because they had never been totally removed from the ocean.
Later in 1994 the U.S. Navy agreed to make up to six surplus dolphins available for release, and the Ocean Reef Club turned their dolphins over to activist Joe Roberts, whose involvement began when he heard O Barry speak to a diving club.
O’Barry, Roberts, former Ocean Reef Club trainers Ric Trout, Lynne Stringer, and Mary Lycan, and a large entourage of activists, funders, and hangers-on then formed the Sugarloaf Dolphin Sanctuary at a Florida Keys resort owned by attorney Lloyd Good. The resort already had a resident performing dolphin trained by Good’s son Lloyd Good III, and a history of conflicts with environmental regulation.
O’Barry and Roberts hoped to use the site to rehabilitate and release the ex-Navy and Ocean Reef Club dolphins.
O’Barry’s second book, To Free A Dolphin, detailed the ensuing disasters in depth and detail.
Berman tried to make peace
Berman became involved when––without ever having visited the Sugarloaf Dolphin Sanctuary––he was elected to the sanctuary board to try to resolve the conflicts among the various factions.
At least four individuals in proximity to the Sugarloaf project had histories of alleged espionage against activism and fomented the strife, in particular another Sugarloaf board member and self-appointed peacemaker who used the name “Rick Spill.”
A long trail of hints later suggested that “Spill” was actually far-right attorney and political fundraiser Bill Wewer.
Wewer in a December 1992 letter to Berman had identified himself as representing Norwegian whalers who belonged to an anti-animal rights organization called Putting People First, founded by his wife Kathleen Marquardt.
Even as Marquardt was forming Putting People First, Wewer incorporated the Doris Day Animal League in 1987, remaining on the payroll until March 1990, and did legal work for the 1990 March for the Animals.
“Spill,” of hazy background but bearing strong resemblance to Wewer, emerged as a marine mammal activist in mid-1993, dropping out of sight in 1999, coincidental with Wewer’s reported death.
Several entities involved in marine mammal issues might have had an interest in covertly keeping U.S. activists focused on release projects and infighting––especially Norway, which had in 1993 resumed commercial whaling.
Spill and other off-site Sugarloaf board members, including Berman, in late May 1995 moved to close the sanctuary and take the dolphins away from O’Barry and Good.
Just a year later, though, Berman hired O’Barry to try to free a captive dolphin in Cuba.
“In Praise of the Bermanator”
O’Barry and Berman were by February 2005 campaigning together for the release of 40 dolphins who had been held in sea pens for up to 18 months at Dolphin Island Retreat, near Honiara in the Solomon Islands.
O’Barry in a February 05, 2005 e-mail entitled “In Praise of the Bermanator” recounted how, en route to the Solomon Islands via Brisbane, Australia, “I was sick as a dog. Chills, pain, fever, weakness, sneezing and coughing took over my life. I summoned the hotel doctor who told me my fever was much too high. He gave me antibiotics and a few sleeping pills, suggesting that I would be feeling better in the morning. I holed up in my hotel room for three days, waiting for the fever to pass, and for Berman to arrive as scheduled. But it only got worse.
“Out cold on the floor”
“Helene, my lovely Danish bride, called from Miami and got a incomprehensible and delirious response from me. (I don’t remember that call.) She immediately called the front desk and demanded that the manager go to my room and check on me. The receptionist refused to help.
“Helene knew something was wrong and then, while trying to talk the receptionist into knocking on my door, she heard Berman in the background. He had just showed up at the hotel. Now Helene could hear him tell another receptionist, in no uncertain terms, to go open the door to my room immediately. He was prepared to huff and puff until he blew the damn door down. So they finally gave him the key.
“By this point,” O’Barry continued, “I was out cold on the floor, completely delirious and dehydrated.
“Bermanator swung into action”
“The Bermanator swung into action immediately. He called a doctor who checked me for vital signs and then called an ambulance.”
Despite spending the night in a Brisbane hospital receiving intravenous fluids, O’Barry flew to Honaria with Berman the following morning.
There, using his influence with the tuna industry, Berman leveraged a suspension of dolphin exports. Three thousand Solomon Islanders work in tuna fishing, Berman pointed out, while “only a very few were gaining from the live dolphin exports.”
Despite a ban on dolphin exports imposed by the Solomon Islands government in November 2005, essentially the same exercise in leveraged negotiation had to be repeated in 2007, again in 2008, and yet again in in April 2010. The most recent leveraged deal to stop Solomon Islands dolphin exports reportedly disintegrated in 2012.
“A good man”
“Mark was a good man. A friend. And I miss him,” O’Barry e-mailed to ANIMALS 24-7 on May 15, 2016. “He worked too hard. He traveled too much. Mark’s sudden death is a reminder to slow down. Travel less. Spend more time with family. Life is too short.”
Said Earth Island Institute in a prepared statement, “Our hearts go out to Mark’s family, his sons Bennett and Nat, former wife Yaowadee Thupthimthong, and two sisters Ellen and Lynn. Mark will be dearly missed by us all. Thanks for all your efforts to keep Mark’s spirit alive and his life’s work moving ahead.”