70-year scientific career focused on whale conservation
PACIANO, Italy––Marine scientist Sidney J. Holt, 93, died on December 22, 2019 at his home in Paciano, Italy, about 80 miles north of Rome and 10 miles north of his previous longtime home in Citta della Pieve, Italy.
Holt thereby realized his often stated life’s ambition of having all the great whale species of the world survive him––an ambition which early in his career appeared questionable for any reasonably young person of normal lifespan.
“I am an English marine biologist”
Recited Holt himself, in a brief autobiography prefacing a bibliography of his more than 200 published scientific papers, “I am an English marine biologist, born in 1926, educated at the University of Reading, England and now resident in Umbria, Italy,” the region including both Paciano and Citta della Pieve.
“I was the co-author with Raymond J. H. Beverton of a book On the Dynamics of Exploited Fish Populations, first published in 1957 and which has since gone to three more editions, and has been described by my peers as “the most widely cited fisheries book ever published.”
Beverton (1922-1995) were both at the time employed by the British government Fisheries Laboratory at Lowestoft, founded in 1902.
Beverton eventually became deputy director of the Fisheries Laboratory.
25 years with the United Nations
Holt moved on, spending “25 years employed in United Nations organizations, having been appointed at various times director of the Fisheries Resources & Operations Division of the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO, in Rome); secretary of the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission; and director of UNESCO’s Marine Sciences Division in Paris,” he recalled.
“I have held professorial chairs at the Universities of California, Santa Cruz; of Rhode Island; and of Malta,” and a senior overseas fellowship at St John’s College, Cambridge,” Holt continued.
“In Malta, I served as U.N. advisor on Mediterranean marine affairs, and was one of the founders and the first director of the International Ocean Institute there,” Holt said.
Thirty years on IWC scientific committee
“Since my retirement from the United Nations in 1979,” Holt added, “I have devoted my energies mainly to the conservation and protection of the great whales, serving on the International Whaling Commission’s committee of three, 1960-1985; on the delegation of the Republic of Seychelles to the IWC from 1979 to 1987; as advisor to the Government of France 1992-1994; and to the delegations of Italy and Chile to the IWC, and also as science advisor to the International Fund for Animal Welfare since 1980.
“I participated in various capacities for more than thirty years in the scientific committee of the IWC, as well as in the Commission itself, from 1959 to 2002,” Holt summarized.
Duped by Russians
But the Holt resume described only the smallest part of his life history as one of the most influential people in saving great whales from extinction during the latter part of the 20th century.
Explained Australian journalist Andrew Darby in his 2008 book Harpoon Into The Heart of Whaling, “The International Whaling Commission in the early 1960s appointed three marine scientists to devise for the first time a sustainable yield for each [whale]species. Unfortunately the ‘three wise men,’ Douglas Chapman, Kenneth Allen, and Sidney Holt, worked from the wrong figures. The disguised scale of the Soviet kill meant they unknowingly under-estimated the damage to stocks” in a committee report issued in 1961.
Realizing that the Soviet government and whaling industry had played him for a sucker changed the direction of Holt’s career.
“In a previous life he was a fish stocks scientist. Holt became an elder oracle from a greener Mount Olympus,” Darby wrote. “White hair and beard flying, Holt shifted openly to environmentalism. Holt also retained serious credibility in the IWC––enough, for example, for one of his treatises to be included in a scientific committee report without the need for a single referenced footnote. The last words of that paper anointed the sperm whale as ‘what some people suspect is a species of exceptional intelligence,’” a point that fellow fisheries scientist Victor B. Scheffer had earlier labored to make in his 1969 opus The Year of the Whale.
A faintly fictionalized account of the first year in the life of a sperm whale, The Year of the Whale contributed mightily to building international momentum to “save the whales.”
“Search for a global ethic”
Center stage in saving great whales on the high seas has always gone to confrontations between whalers and anti-whalers, led at first by Paul Watson under the Greenpeace flag, and after 1978 by Watson under the flag of his own Sea Shepherd Conservation Society.
But the legal and political action, converting public opinion into international law, has come mainly through the IWC.
After representatives of the Japanese whaling industry argued in 1978 that cultural differences meant that a single global standard could not and should not be applied to setting whaling quotas, Holt responded, “The purpose of this body is precisely to search for a global ethic; that is why we are here.”
Played for time
Beyond scientific searching, Holt applied diplomatic skills learned through his work at the United Nations to out-maneuver Japanese delegations to IWC conferences time and again, helping to keep Japan engaged in the process of trying to obtain commercial whaling quotas until December 25, 2018.
By the time Japan finally quit the IWC, the Japanese whaling industry had contracted to a ghost of itself, with little market left even within Japan for whale meat and byproducts.
Narrated Darby, “Holt knew Lyall Watson (1939-2008), a nature writer in Seychelles. He connected Holt with the left-wing Seychellois president, Albert Rene (1935-2019, president 1977-2004), and to the initial mystification of Japan, the small island jewel joined the IWC. Holt watched from an observer’s seat at the IWC in 1979 as the Seychelles, with Lyall Watson running the delegation, proposed and won the vote” that created the Indian Ocean Sanctuary, extending from the Gulf of Oman to the sub-Antarctic.
This was the first major defeat for Japanese whalers at an IWC meeting.
Recalled Holt to ANIMALS 24-7, in September 1994, “Seychelles joined the IWC in 1979 and that same year succeeded in getting the Indian Ocean declared a whale sanctuary. Its proposal for the cessation of all sperm whaling having failed the following year, in 1991 it led a group also including the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, and France in obtaining a permanent moratorium on sperm whaling.
“This did not endear Seychelles to Japan”
“In those years Seychelles also persisted in trying to get the North Pacific Baird’s beaked whale (hunted only by Japan) accepted as within the competence of the IWC; it was thwarted by the countries that engage in hunting smaller cetaceans, led by Denmark.
“This did not endear Seychelles to Japan, nor did the fact that the general moratorium adopted in 1982 was a Seychelles proposal. Japan began to exert more and more diplomatic pressure and offered huge financial inducements both to change Seychelles’ policy and to prevent activity––to no avail.
“In the interregnum between the adoption of the moratorium and its coming into force in 1986, the Seychelles took the lead, both politically and in providing the scientific rationale, in reducing the Antarctic minke whale quotas then being set.
“Only after the end of the Cold War, when Seychelles no longer played a key role in impeding occupation of the Indian Ocean by the Soviet navy and so was economically abandoned by the U.S. and most of the European Community did it inevitably begin to fall into the Japanese orbit.”
Then, wrote Holt, “In the IWC it adopted a noncommittal position and eventually took the honorable way of leaving the IWC,” rather than following other small island nations in more-or-less trading IWC alignment with Japan for Japanese economic aid.
Whaling & mining
Again and again Holt likened commercial whaling to the mining industry.
In 1985, for instance, Holt wrote that “Commercial whaling has never been, is not now, and economically speaking probably never can be, based on sustainable exploitation from a stock which is kept near to or above its biologically optimal level.
“Whaling is essentially an extractive industry, akin to mining. Targeted depletion of one whale ‘seam’ stops when it becomes uneconomic to extract more, and the industry moves on to other places and species.”
“We remember him as a genius” ––Brian & Gloria Davies
Eulogized Network for Animals founders Brian and Gloria Davies, “We were deeply saddened to learn that Dr. Holt passed away peacefully after a long illness. He would have celebrated his 94th birthday in February 2020.
Continued the Davies’ statement, “We have known and worked with Sidney since 1978,” or since about 10 years after Brian Davies transformed the former New Brunswick SPCA Save the Seals Fund into the International Fund for Animal Welfare.
“Largely unknown was Sidney’s contribution to the moratorium on commercial whaling in 1986, and his vital behind-the-scenes work with the Government of France, and others, which in 1994 resulted in the entire Southern Sanctuary being declared as a sanctuary for whales,” the Davies’ remembrance added.
Left IFAW post-Davies
“For 30 years, Sidney was associated with Greenpeace,” acknowledged Brian and Gloria Davies of his contributions to IFAW’s major rival in international fundraising, before Holt joined IFAW. “He served briefly as executive director of its United Kingdom office. He founded its Italian branch.
“We remember him as a genius, one of the most accomplished and effective marine biologists in history, an intrepid crusader for all sentient beings and one of the kindest souls imaginable,” Brian and Gloria Davies concluded.
Like Animals Asia Foundation founder Jill Robinson and Paul Seigel, a fundraiser for many of the most influential animal charities worldwide, Holt did not remain associated with IFAW for long after Brian Davies retired in 2003.
But unlike Robinson and Seigel, Holt did not build his own organization––although he had cofounded the International League for the Protection of Cetaceans in 1980, an entity apparently incorporated in France, disbanded in 2015, cited in connection with various of Holt’s publications.
Joined Sea Shepherds
Holt in February 2010 joined the advisory board of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society.
“Although I have long had, and continue to have, informal and sometimes formal advisory relations with several nonprofit organizations that consistently and persistently oppose commercial whaling,” Holt wrote, he particularly looked forward to being associated with the Sea Shepherds because “The Sea Shepherd Conservation Society is not afraid to speak out against cruelty to, and mistreatment of, sentient non-human beings, and the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society more than any others is clear about the fact that commercial whaling, especially that by Japan in the guise of scientific research, is driven solely by business/financial considerations and is best opposed through disrupting those imperatives, both on the supply and the demand sides.”
Sea Shepherd Conservation Society founder Paul Watson had apparently not yet issued any public statement about Holt’s death as of December 28, 2019.
“Sidney was a damn rock star”
Longtime Greenpeace team member Kieran Mulvaney was among Holt’s youngest close associates, despite not even mentioning either Holt––or Paul Watson––in the 350 pages of his 2003 book The Whaling Season: An Inside Account of the Struggle to Stop Commercial Whaling.
Remembered Mulvaney, “Sidney was an inspiration. His intellect remained fierce, and his knowledge broad and deep, until the end, and he loved to share both – whether asked to or not. Put simply, Sidney was a damn rock star, even to the end.
“When I was a cub wannabe whale-saver in 1985,” Mulvaney recalled, “I was immensely honored when Sidney, in response to my request for information on whaling, sent me offprints of his most recent articles. In 1987, when Sean Whyte and I founded the Whale & Dolphin Conservation Society,” two years before Mulvaney joined Greenpeace, “his very public support was not only of immense value, it affixed to us an imprimatur of authority we would not otherwise have earned.
“Sidney could be an irascible old sod, but he was at heart profoundly kind and gentle,” Mulvaney continued. “He would dismissively refer to me as ‘the Irishman,’ sometimes ‘that bloody Irishman,’ but with a twinkle in his eye. It always made me proud when he asked me to work with him on something, and nothing made me more so than, thanks to diligence of Patrick Ramage and Leslie Busby, helping shape his memoirs into a printed product. We were working on a new version when he passed; I deeply regret we could not finish it in time, but as Leslie says, ‘What matters is that we have his remarkable story to share.’”