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Sea Shepherd On Malta: “Politicians Bribed By Tuna Fishermen”

Those who watch Animal Planet may recognize the face; others may know it from being in the business for years. Some may not even know it. However, this face belongs to a man who has dedicated his life to one thing: saving the world’s oceans and the fish that live in them.

Captain Paul Watson is the founder of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society and the Co-Founding Director of Greenpeace Foundation. Watson has served as Master and Commander on seven different Sea Shepherd ships since the Society’s establishment. The current fleet of the Sea Shepherd Society is the Brigitte Bardot, M/Y Bob Barker, and the M/Y Steve Irwin. Watson currently commands the flagship Steve Irwin.

He is currently leading the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society’s dramatic whale defense campaign on the Antarctic high seas, which is in its fourth season on Animal Planet’s docu-reality series, Whale Wars. For seven whaling seasons now, Watson and his dedicated crew of volunteers have taken to the high seas in attempt to stop the Japanese ships from illegally killing whales in the Southern Ocean Whale Sanctuary.

New Europe caught up with him to discuss marine conservation and EU fishing policy.
New Europe: Can you give a small introduction of yourself and the background on the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society? What are your objectives and mission(s)?
PW:   I established the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society (SSCS) in 1977. I had been one of the co-founders of Greenpeace up until then, and I left then to set up the SSCS. We are different; we are not a protest organization but an interventionist society. We do not engage in illegal activities, but we are really an anti-poaching organization. We have now been doing this for 35 years.
Setting up and running an NGO is difficult as it is, but your approach is taking the more ‘activist’ approach which takes the NGO work to another level. Can you describe how you first got into this project, and how this dream was realized? Did you find the traditional methods of fighting, like diplomacy and negotiations, to be ineffective?

You cannot really protest against illegal activity. We are dealing with criminal and they are going to do what they are going to do. Thus, protest is not going to work, so we decided to intervene physically.

We came up with some rules of engagement to our work effectively. One is that we do not cause injuries, and we have not caused any injuries to anybody for the 35 years that we have been doing this.

We also offer aid in accordance with the principles established by the United Nations World Charter for Nature, which allows for NGOs and individuals to uphold international conservation law; specifically, in section 21(e), in areas beyond national jurisdictions.

But this dream was realized because, while I was at Greenpeace, all we were doing is hanging up banners and watching whales and seals die, and not gaining very much ground to stop the killings. Greenpeace’s whole philosophy is to bear witness. For me, this means being a coward because it will not stop anything. You will not walk down the street and watch a woman being raped, watch a child being molested, or watch a dog being kicked to death and do absolutely nothing! It is the same idea here. I could not watch whales being slaughtered and just hold up banners.

With many different nature conservation treaties and charters that the SSCS acts in accordance with, and with the many various species that it aims to protect, what elements go into the decision making process for what missions to take and for what species to protect?

We look for areas and fishes where illegal activity is taking place and try to intervene. Specifically, we look at whether it is physically possible to do that and then go from there.

We have different strategies. For example, we are working in full partnership with the Ecuadorian national police and the Galapagos park rangers to protect the Galapagos island marine reserve. We have been there and working with them for 10 years now. We have even now installed a €1 million AIS system to identify vessels coming into the park. We have also supplied a K-9 unit there to sniff out shark-fins, a patrol boat and radios for the police. This is just one approach that we have.

Another approach is that we hunt down these poachers on the high-seas, and physically obstruct them.

Can you a little about your current mission to protect whales from the Japanese whaling fleets, how successful has it been, and what are your next steps?

Japan is targeting endangered and protected whales in an established international whale sanctuary called the Southern Ocean Whale Sanctuary, and violating the global moratorium on commercial whaling. So, we come down here to physically block them. Every year, we have been getting more and more successful. Last year, they only took 17% of their quota and they left a month and half early.

This year, though, it has been a little more difficult for two reasons. One is an allocated $30m to the Tsunami Economic Relief Fund. The whaling industry and fleets have used this fund to come after us to provide security for their fleets, they use PR companies against us, and also take legal action against us.

Second, our scout vessel, the Brigitte Bardot was damaged, and this is a handicap for us.

However, we are still keeping the whaling fleet on the run. We have now chased them for 14,000 miles over the last two months, and we still have them on the run everyday.

The EU’s fishing policy has its ups and downs in its recent past. One of the problems that the European Commission faces is ‘over-fishing and depleting stocks’. The bluefin tuna issue is a perfect example of this. Although the Commission recognized the problem of its depleting numbers, and tried to present a ban on international trade under a CITES Appendix I listing, the tuna continues to be illegally poached which contributes to its depleting numbers. Do you think the EU fishing policy in general is successful in protecting fish species and against over-fishing, and more specifically with the bluefin tuna? What suggestions do you have for it to be more effective?

The policy on fishing is basically to give the fishermen everything they want. When you have a fish that is worth $200,000-$300,000, then there is going to be a lot of motivation to go after it. There is more illegal fishing in the world than there is legal fishing.

When it comes to the bluefin tuna, fishermen are taking over their quota every single year and no-one is really doing anything about it.

We were out there last year and the year before, and we found these fishermen breaking the law and intervened. We decided to release their illegal catch, but now we are in court in England because they are suing us for the loss of their catch. The ridiculous part about it is that our argument was based on that it was an illegal catch, but the court said that it did not matter whether it was illegal or legal. It said that we broke the law by releasing their illegal catch!

So, it seems to be that the courts and the governments are more interested in protecting the interests of the illegal fishermen than to help conservationists to protect that species.

What is happening with Malta is that there is a whole illegal enterprise going on there with the full support of the politicians who are being bribed by these tuna fishermen. These practices will seriously contribute to wiping out the bluefin tuna and will make a lot of people rich in the process.

I call this the economics of extinction because as the numbers of the fish species dwindle, the price goes up, and that makes even more money to be made. They are putting the bluefin tuna in warehouses in Japan and they get a five-to-six year supply, and when there is no bluefin tuna left, you are looking at a supply that can be set at any price that these fishermen want. Thus, what they are really investing in is extinction.

The EU has all the rules and regulations that protect our oceans, however, what they do not have is enforcement. We have a lack of will on the part of governments to enforce international conservation law. They need to get out there and arrest the bastards. But, they are doing this because too much money is passing hands under the table going to many politicians in Europe, just like in Malta; there is no question that Maltese politicians are on the take.

Another recent step that the European Commission has taken recently was to close the loopholes in the prohibition of shark-finning aboard vessels, yet the world's largest exporter of shark fins is still the EU. What more needs to be done to protect all shark species in its seas, especially in the Mediterranean?

They have to outlaw shark-finning everywhere. We are killing 75-90m sharks a year. This is a sole reproducing fish and it is being wiped out; its population is being severely diminished.

The shark has shaped evolution in our oceans for 400m years. Remove it and you cause all sorts of ecological chaos. The fact is that as we start wiping out all the sharks and the whales and overfish everything else, the oceans will die. As the oceans die, we die. We cannot live on this planet with a dead ocean.

I don’t think that people understand that the value of the ocean is much more valuable than putting a fish on your plate. The ocean maintains the integrity of the whole maritime ecosystem; there are so many factors that come into play where we depend on the ocean for our survival.

What we should have in the Mediterranean is to declare the whole sea as taboo, the same way that the Tahitians and the Polynesians used to deal with something like this. They would declare a whole area taboo; no fishing for 20 or 30 years, or at least whatever it took. If you were caught fishing in those taboo areas, it was the death penalty. The reason for that is because if they didn't control it in that way, the fish would have been wiped out.

We have no taboo areas left on the planet. Every fish is under attack, they are being hunted down and cannot hide anywhere, and we are simply eradicating fish species after fish species out of our oceans. People do not do anything about it because it is out of sight and as long as there is fish in the supermarket, the everything is fine for them, even if they change from one fish to the other.

Look at Turpin. Twenty-five years ago, Turpin was a trash fish, they threw it away. Now, it is going for €24/kilo in a Croatian fish market I visited last year.

What message could you give to the European consumer for their consumption IQ when buying fish in the supermarket?

Just don’t buy it at all. They shouldn’t be eating fish anyway.

First of all, it is unhealthy as it is full of mercury, arsenic, lead and all PCPs. Second, we are destroying them slowly but surely. If we destroy them, we are destroying the oceans, and consequently, we are destroying ourselves in the process. So, it is like taking a bite out of our future every time somebody eats a fish.

I was raised in a fishing village in eastern Canada. I don’t eat fish now, but when I was young, that was what I was raised on. I know how difficult it is, but at the same time, over the last 50 years, I have seen a steady diminishing of life in our oceans, and it is because we are eating our oceans alive. There are too many people and not enough fish.

Would you like to add anything else?

Europe certainly has the means to address the issues of fisheries. Let the enforcement people get out there and do their job. That is what I'm finding all over the world. Many people come to the SSCS who were agents with the Environmental Protection Agency - one of their agents works with us now – former coast-guard members and former policemen. They come to us because they could no longer do their job when they were in those positions because their hands were tied by their own governments.