by Ramesh Chandran K.P.
“When it comes to marine life, our existence depends upon their existence.” – June Stoyer
“Earth provides enough to satisfy every man’s needs, but not every man’s greed.” – Mahatma Gandhi
Everything we need for a sustainable life is in the oceans. And yet, we often forget to defend it. We fail to protect it from those who destroy it. We’ve taken too many fish out of the water and left too few behind to reproduce. And marine life is declining in an alarming rate.
The Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, which was established in 1977 by Captain Paul Watson, is a pioneer in the area of protection of marine life and act strongly against illegal fishing in those regions where there is no necessary law enforcement.
Captain Siddharth Chakravarty, an Indian marine conservationist who is a part of Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, has traveled across oceans, studying and documenting illegal fishing and destruction of marine habitat. He has confronted whale poachers in Antarctica, patrolled the fishing season in the Mediterranean Sea and assisted with sea inspections in the Pacific. He and his crew also had shut down a few illegal fishing vessels operating in some of the oceans. Here Chakravarty speaks about why the marine conservation is the need of the hour:
Marine wildlife conservation is not a popular subject in Kerala. Most of us are not adequately informed about the significance of preserving the precious lives in our oceans and about the threats it has been facing. Please tell us how bad is the illegal fishing for the world and to nature?
One of the simplest ways to look at the oceans is as the world’s oxygen generator. And for the oceans to keep producing the oxygen we breathe, every single aspect of it needs to work together and, more importantly, needs to function healthily. Every time we take biomass (fish) out of the oceans, we begin a process that has a potential to disrupt this healthy cycle if not sustained legally and properly. Today a third of the world’s fish are over-fished, meaning that 1 out of every 3 fish we eat, comes from a badly managed source and is directly leading to disrupting the healthy functioning of the ocean. And if we look back at the last 150 years of commercial whaling and fishing, it is clear that such examples are not uncommon. In short, illegality in fishing threatens the very future of the oceans and has the potential, if not set right now, to set in place a chain of events that will be beyond our control.
61 pilot whales slaughtered in the Faroe Islands. photo credit: Cris Cely / Sea Shepherd
What is it that you actually do in the international waters? How do you operate on a mission? Is it legal?
International waters are the ‘high seas’ areas that cover close to 40 percent of the world’s oceans and are outside of any national jurisdiction. If one stands on the coast of Kerala and looks out to sea, the first 200 nautical miles (about 360 kms) are under India’s national Jurisdiction. The waters beyond this demarcation are defined as the high-seas. These waters are regulated by numerous UN conventions, which need to be implemented by the countries which register/flag the ships that fish in these waters. There is no international navy to enforce laws in these waters and as such, these waters have become havens for illegal operators.
Sea Shepherd’s campaigns in the high seas are to specifically target these illegal and errant operators and enforce international law. The organization’s ships leave from ports closest to the high-seas areas in search of illegal fishing vessels. Once these vessels are located, the role of the organization is two-fold. One, to directly intervene in their operations to stop the illegality as it is being committed. And the second, to document their activities and work with relevant law enforcement authorities across the world to ensure the vessels are investigated and prosecuted when they arrive back in port.
Capt. Siddharth Chakravarty radios the poachers, notifying them of their illegal activity. photo credit: Tim Watters / Sea Shepherd Global
The organization’s vessels are registered in the Netherlands and operate under the relevant laws of that country. Where relevant permits are needed, the organization applies for and operates under them. The campaigns are largely independent and do not directly work with any state-actors. On the question of legality, Sea Shepherd uses the UN World Charter for Nature as a principle to execute its campaigns. However, the same loopholes which are exploited by the poachers are the ones which Sea Shepherd uses to enforce international law and bring the perpetrators of these crimes to justice.
Why don’t we have a system for monitoring and taking stern actions against such illegal operators?
The treatment of fisheries crimes as criminal ones is a very recent development and is still in its early days. Fisheries crimes are now being called ‘trans-national organized crime’ and in its definition itself lends an insight into why these crimes are so hard to combat. One of the most successful campaigns that I have been a part of is Operation Icefish, which chased the notorious fishing vessel THUNDER. This vessel was owned in Spain, operated from Nigeria, fished in the high-seas of Antarctica, was captained by a Chilean national, crewed by Indonesians and used ports in South East Asia. Given the multitude of jurisdictions, countries and therefore the applicable laws, it becomes very hard to have one response to these crimes.
Enforcement at sea is one of the most effective tools to combat fisheries crimes but unfortunately they come at a massive cost. Even enforcement within the EEZs of countries is an endeavor most developing nations cannot undertake. The way the current UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) is worded does not allow for law enforcement in the high seas. The current day ocean governance regime, the UNCLOS, was born just 34 years ago. In this time-frame, the fishing industry has leaped across borders and reached an international scale, while governance and enforcement measures have lagged behind.
Interpol wanted poaching vessel, Thunder, shadowed by the Sea Shepherd ships Bob Barker and Sam Simon. Photo: Simon Ager/Sea Shepherd Global
From your voyages across the oceans, which is the most spectacular region? Why?
I believe, that as people, we tend to be biased about defining nature depending on what we get out of it. So in those terms, parts of the oceans, which are abundant in life, allow us to interact with them and give us a sense of being with nature. By that definition, Antarctica because of the unique setting of wildlife and weather, and Raja Ampat, Indonesia because of its tropical abundance in life are the most spectacular. One is close to the equator and the other at the South Pole and in their diversity they are a great unifier of the spectacular array of life in the oceans.
That being said, I was recently in the Indian Ocean. In a place, where for days the blue ocean stretched around us, we confronted a fleet of illegal fishing vessels. When we confiscated their nets, in just one day we documented more than 10 species of marine life on them. We came across seals, dolphins, tuna, sharks and smaller pelagic fish and that’s when it struck me that just because we didn’t see them, didn’t mean they didn’t exist. Life was really everywhere.
In that sense, fishing affects all parts of the oceans. Once a hook or a net or a line is in the water it begins to take life out of it. What merely then matters is how many hooks or nets or lines we subject the oceans to.
One of the sharks that is retrieved in the gillnet, and later discarded. Photo: Simon Ager / Sea Shepherd Global
You have faced a lot of aggression and assault attempts from illegal fishing vessels during your journeys. Is there any particular incident that disturbs you most?
For me, the most spectacular moment yet has been to witness the sinking of the illegal fishing vessel THUNDER. After a concentrated campaign of 110 days, this vessel was deliberately sunk by her captain to destroy evidence. To witness the sinking of the most notorious poacher on this planet is an unforgettable achievement. And what makes it even more special is the fact that for 13 years it had evaded all forms of law enforcement and wreaked havoc on the Antarctic marine ecosystem. And then, due to the efforts of two conservation vessels, it was pushed to the absolute edge where the only way out was to be sunk in the deep ocean. That vessel today lies 3 kilometers under the Atlantic Ocean.
The Thunder lists dramatically to the starboard side as it takes on water. Photo: Simon Ager/Sea Shepherd Global
I’ve watched your session, ‘Secrets From The Deep Blue‘. Those images are stunning and the data you shared is really disturbing. We know global warming is hurting it really bad, but we are unaware of its marine exploitation. Can you describe the changes that you noticed during your four Antarctic voyages ?
I think one of the reasons we are reacting sluggishly to climate change is because we do not visually see any appreciable changes around us. They take place at a pace that allows us to adjust to the change without comparing it to a baseline from where the change started. So in four visits in Antarctica, it’s impossible to see any direct change to the continent. But the scale of the change becomes relevant when one thinks about that fact that for the first time in millions of years, this year the CO2 concentration at the South Pole crossed 400 PPM. Or that close to 1.3 million whales were harpooned here in a period of 100 years, leaving behind the ocean giants – the Blue whales and the Fin whales – as endangered animals. While Antarctica might still be a cluster of life in the summer months today, it is a diminished and a lesser version of what it was a hundred years ago. Those are the drastic and dramatic changes our actions on the planet have resulted in.
Have you operated off the Indian coasts? Have you ever come across Indian firms or ships harming the marine wildlife?
Thus far, the organization has not operated in the Indian sub-continent, does not have an operations base in India and has not had a run-in with any Indian-flagged ships. The reason for this is because India’s fishery is concentrated close to the shore and within the Indian Exclusive Economic Zone, with very few vessels operating in the high-seas.
Steve Irwin crewmember, Erica, holds a common dolphin, which was retrieved dead in the illegal net. photo credit: Eliza Muirhead / Sea Shepherd Global
You left your job in the merchant navy and joined Sea Shepherd for a cause. And you have been traveling across the oceans for around 15 years. Looking back at the journey, how do you feel now?
I wouldn’t be where I am today if I wasn’t where I was 15 years ago. Going to the merchant navy gave me an opportunity to experience a part of this planet many people can’t. It allowed me to have skills that put me in a position to switch over to Sea Shepherd and excel there. And when I reflect back on my journey, and even reflect upon every passing day, I know that in 15 years from now I’ll be in a place because of what I am doing today. So I guess as a journey through life, we must look at what we do on a daily basis, so ultimately as those days accumulate they lead us onto where we want to be.
What was your friends and family’s response when you decided to join Sea Shepherd?
Absolute support. I was with my mother and my sister when I first sent in my application. Then I left the merchant navy, bought my own flight ticket to Australia and went off to volunteer on the STEVE IRWIN. If I hadn’t had my family and friends supporting me, I would have never kept going back. Perhaps I would have gone that first time and then moved back to my life in the merchant navy. And their support has grown over the last 6 years.
What’re your upcoming projects/future plans?
I have recently become very interested in the labor supply chains in the global fishing industry. My upcoming projects aim to research this field with more rigor, with the aim to understand the economic, social and political drivers of this business model. I also intend to study India’s coastal community’s interactions with the oceans because they do so in a very different way compared to industrial fishing vessels. These two aspects lie at the core of my future work.
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