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The Prince of Whales : Advocate for Sea's Giants Leaves Wake of Controversy

Environment: Officials, others praise his work on behalf of endangered northern right whales, but criticize approach. One agency has a restraining order against him.

July 06, 1997|MICHAEL TIGHE | ASSOCIATED PRESS

BOSTON — Richard Max Strahan speaks in contradictions.

He says he's a pauper. He says he's a prince: the "Prince of Whales."

He describes the animals he is crusading to protect--northern right whales--as "abandoned babies" nobody else wants. But he also admits he'd abandon those babies to play guitar for Guns 'N' Roses.

He proclaims he is widely known because of his efforts to give the 300 remaining whales a slim chance of survival. But then he refuses to talk about himself--where he's from, where he's been.

Yet, there is Richard Max Strahan, the enigmatic person who almost single-handedly forced the state of Massachusetts, the National Marine Fisheries Service, the U.S. Coast Guard, whale-watching vessels and New England fishermen and lobstermen to protect right whales.

"Max, despite what some people say, is at the helm of the issue and is steering the feds and the state on this," said Jay McCaffrey, conservation director of the state chapter of the Sierra Club.

But the targets of Strahan's lawsuits accuse him of focusing attention on less common threats to the whales. Meanwhile, the major threats--collisions with tankers, freighters and barges--remain.

"His accusations, tactics and proposed remedies should be cause for great alarm," Peter Borrelli, executive director of the Center for Coastal Studies in Provincetown, Mass., said in a recent newsletter. "He is filing nuisance suits in federal court that have done more to obscure the real issues than to save the whales."

Andrew Rosenberg, regional director of the fisheries service, said Strahan hasn't raised any issues not already addressed by the Endangered Species Act and Marine Mammal Protection Act, both of which the agency is required to enforce.

Instead, he said, Strahan simply has sped up some of the timetables for enforcement.

"I think you would be hard-pressed to say the whales are better off," Rosenberg said. "It's not always best to do things at kind of a breakneck pace and under enormous pressure."

Strahan has quite a different opinion, and he often expresses it in off-color language. In fact, some say he takes the bumper-sticker approach too much to heart.

At least one state agency has a restraining order against Strahan for alleged harassment, the New England Aquarium has banned him from the premises, and the federal fisheries service avoids his calls because of previous vitriolic attacks.

During a recent conversation, Strahan lambasted several politicians, fishermen, lobstermen, environmental groups and even some of the scientists who are devoting their professional lives to the right whales.

The charcoal-colored animals have been around for at least 10 million years, much longer than humans. Usually identified by the series of small bumps on their heads, the whales can reach a length of 55 feet and a weight of 70 tons. They can live more than 50 years.

Once numbering in the thousands, the northern right whales were hunted nearly to extinction during centuries of American whaling.

Now, despite international protections, only about 300 remain. That's why anyone perceived as impeding the whales' recovery earns a tongue-lashing from Strahan.

"When this whale is in trouble, there's a spiritual connection that says I'm in trouble," he said. "That's what motivates me."

Strahan said he comes from a family of environmentalists and has worked on campaigns to protect spotted owls, salamanders and butterflies.

He won't reveal anything about his life prior to 1985. He is believed to be in his late 30s or early 40s.

"I just want to keep the focus on the whale," he said. "I'm the 'mystery man.' This is the 'mystery campaign.' "

Strahan enrolled in Boston University's Metropolitan College in 1983 but didn't earn a degree. He also has a lengthy criminal record--including trespassing, larceny and fraud--earned while national campaign director for GreenWorld, an environmental group that today has only one member: him.

Newspapers in Springfield and Boston have reported that Strahan spent GreenWorld money on lingerie, camera equipment, a health club and courses at UC Berkeley. He also hasn't filed mandated annual fund-raising reports with the state.

Strahan appeared on the environmental radar screen in the 1980s when he petitioned the federal government to list the spotted owl as an endangered species, setting off heated debate in the Pacific Northwest.

In 1994, he sued the Coast Guard in federal court in Boston for allegedly violating international and federal laws by killing right whales with their vessels. The Coast Guard last year was ordered to change its operations to accommodate the whales.

In 1995, Strahan sued state Environmental Affairs Secretary Trudy Coxe, claiming Massachusetts was responsible for fishing activities in state waters that threatened right whales. The state since has curtailed fishing in Cape Cod Bay when the whales are there.

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