Response by Sea Shepherd Founder, Captain Paul Watson

Retrieval of a massive gill net left behind by the ThunderRetrieval of a massive gill net left behind
by the Thunder
File photo
Once again I have to respond to Dr. Julia Jabour of the Institute for Marine and Antarctic Studies and Indi Hodgson-Johnston of the University of Tasmania, who continue to criticize Operation Icefish once again in the Tasmanian newspaper Mercury. Admittedly they have toned down their condemnation in light of Sea Shepherd’s successful intervention against the poaching vessel Thunder, but they still continue to insinuate that Sea Shepherd is “illegally fishing” by recovering the abandoned gill net.

This last week the New Zealand Navy intercepted three of the six notorious Southern Ocean toothfish poachers following the interception a month ago of a fourth poacher, the most notorious of all, the Nigerian-flagged Thunder.

The New Zealand Navy claims they are powerless to actually stop the poachers. The poachers have continued to set and haul their nets as the Navy looks on, waiting for “permission” from their government to intervene.

Not a single toothfish poaching vessel has been intercepted since 2003, when the Australian government ship Southern Supporter chased the Uraguayan poacher Viarsa I for 21 days. The pursuit of the Thunder by the Sea Shepherd ship Bob Barker has exceeded that pursuit, establishing a new world record for the longest pursuit of an illegal fishing vessel.

Anyhow once again I have to respond point-by-point to “experts” Jabour and Hodgson-Johnston.

I do acknowledge that Academics have a need to justify themselves as experts. Their careers depend upon being advisors to government and industry. They need to publish and speak out in defense of their clients.

Sea Shepherd, on the other hand, are not advisors to government and industry. Our clients are the living citizens of the sea and in this case that means our clients are the toothfish.

What I do not understand is exactly why Jabour and Hodgson-Johnston feel it is necessary to appoint themselves as the expert critics of Operation Icefish. What constructive purpose are they trying to fulfill in doing so?

It’s a simple case of conservationists in opposition to poachers. They are saying that Sea Shepherd has a bias against the poachers. I’m not sure if this implies that they don’t have a bias against the poachers, but they certainly seem to have a bias against Sea Shepherd and Operation Icefish.


Jabour/Hodgson-Johnston: The Sea Shepherd Conservation Society’s encounter with the Nigerian-flagged toothfish fishing vessel “Thunder” highlights the problem of illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing.

Captain Paul Watson: It has indeed highlighted the problem so I am happy to see that our two experts agree with that at least.

Indi Hodgson-Johnston: The fishing activities of vessels such as “Thunder” are unsustainable and indiscriminate.

Captain Paul Watson: Looks like this is something else we can agree upon.

ANTARCTICA’S MOST WANTED FISHING BOAT TAILED BY SEA SHEPHERD

Indi Hodgson-Johnston: While criticism abounds from Sea Shepherd supporters about the fishing problems in the Southern Ocean, these activities are, in fact, isolated remnants of a once frequent occurrence. This follows tireless efforts by the Hobart-based Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources to deal with the problem. There are fewer than 10 illegal, unreported and unregulated vessels now known to visit the CCAMLR fishing area.

Captain Paul Watson: The “remnants,” as they call them, continue to exploit hundreds of tons of toothfish as the poachers profit by tens of millions of dollars—and in some cases continue to receive government subsidies through the various layers of bureaucracy of the corporate interests that control their operations. If one vessel like the Thunder can set 100 kilometers of gill net, that means a potential for 1,000 miles of gill nets being set, and not once but over and over again during the season. These nets are weapons of mass biological and ecological destruction. I would not call these operations insignificant. A 100-kilometer net is not an insignificant threat. If the problem has not been stamped out and continues to persist, this means that there remains a significant threat to the survival of the species.

Indi Hodgson-Johnston: This is dwarfed hundreds-fold by the problems off West Africa, where anarchic, brazen acts of such fishing practices are rife.

Captain Paul Watson: Which is precisely why Sea Shepherd has been operational off Senegal, South Africa and Cape Verde. Illegal fishing is a global problem, but what the Australia experts are saying here is that while it’s true that some banks are being robbed in Australia, many more banks are being robbed elsewhere. Sea Shepherd is a movement operating worldwide. The insinuation here is that Sea Shepherd should be addressing other problems instead of opposing illegal fishing in the Southern Ocean. They appear to be ignorant of the many issues and the many places where Sea Shepherd is active.

Indi Hodgson-Johnston: Illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing is a transnational and convoluted web of organised crime, unsustainable practices, and is rife with jurisdictional problems.

Captain Paul Watson: An understatement indeed, in addition to being rife with bureaucratic problems and vested economic agendas.

Indi Hodgson-Johnston: Laws to combat the practice are complex and frustrating, especially on the high seas, where regulation fails to keep pace with modern fishing.

Captain Paul Watson:  Laws are complex and frustrating when muddled by politics and bureaucracy. The situation is simple. Unregulated fishing vessels simply need to be stopped and their abandoned gear confiscated just like Sea Shepherd has accomplished with the Thunder. Politics and bureaucracy have rendered enforcement agencies impotent. This has been illustrated by the fact that when Sea Shepherd intercepted the Thunder, the poachers dropped their gear and ran and they continue to run. The three poachers intercepted by the New Zealand Navy have simply continued to fish and to ignore the naval vessels. Why? Because the New Zealand Navy does not appear to be a threat to them.

Indi Hodgson-Johnston: The actions of Sea Shepherd are effective in raising public attention to the problem and are lauded in public discourse.

Captain Paul Watson: So very nice of them to acknowledge this. Just over a month ago, they were saying that Sea Shepherd could contribute nothing towards solving this problem.

Indi Hodgson-Johnston: Even legal operators have congratulated Sea Shepherd, despite Paul Watson’s statement that toothfish should not be killed for “expensive dinners”.

Captain Paul Watson: Yes of course they support what Sea Shepherd is doing, because Sea Shepherd is an anti-poaching organization. Sea Shepherd is not by definition an anti-fishing organization. We are not even a protest organization. We oppose criminals. My personal views about not eating fish are irrelevant to the objectives of Sea Shepherd. I’m sure that COLTO is more concerned about poaching than about my views on not eating Chilean sea bass.

Indi Hodgson-Johnston: However, we argue that improving practice in law and evidence collection, developing efficient and effective monitoring and surveillance technologies, building capacity of flag and port states in regions that such fishing operators exploit, are the mechanisms that will ultimately lead to criminal convictions to combat the global problem.

Captain Paul Watson: These are all very good things and Sea Shepherd is 100% in support of anything that is being done to curb illegal fishing. In the meantime there remains destructive poaching activities that remain outside of the reach of law enforcement. We have the evidence and we have the surveillance. What is lacking is the political and economic will to crack down on the poachers, especially in international waters.

Indi Hodgson-Johnston: Media coverage invokes confusion and outrage at the lack of action by authorities.

Captain Paul Watson: And thus they bring their views to the media so as to contribute even more to the confusion and outrage. Making ridiculous accusations that confiscating an abandoned gill net constitutes illegal fishing is not only confusing, it’s downright ridiculous and the kind of thing that makes the public respond with anger.

Indi Hodgson-Johnston: Legally, Australian and New Zealand governments are hampered in their desire to obliterate such fishing in the Southern Ocean due to “Thunder” fishing on the high seas.

Captain Paul Watson: Australia and New Zealand are hampered by their politicians and bureaucrats. This is why the poachers are not taking the New Zealand Navy very seriously. 

Indi Hodgson-Johnston: Arguably, however, the most important work to be done to address this problem is by improving and challenging the existing legal frameworks — the system upon which Sea Shepherd hopes to ultimately rely when they demand authorities charge the Thunder with an offense.

Captain Paul Watson:  By all means they should improve the existing legal framework because it is quite obvious it is no longer effective.

Indi Hodgson-Johnston: This expertise is specifically drawn from direct experience at sea, scientific research, international legal practice, and years of experience in Southern Ocean laws and policies.

Captain Paul Watson: Sea Shepherd has 40 years of experience in battling poachers on the high seas and 12 years of experience in the Southern Ocean. What we have found is that the poachers respond best to aggressive intervention.

Indi Hodgson-Johnston: The Sea Shepherd Conservation Society’s encounter with the Nigerian-flagged toothfish fishing vessel Thunder highlights the problem of illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing.

The unfolding story of “Thunder” and the Dutch-flagged Sea Shepherd vessels “Bob Barker” and “Sam Simon” highlights why this legal and multidisciplinary inquiry promulgated by IMAS researchers needs to continue.

Captain Paul Watson: Sea Shepherd is delighted to help with the highlighting.

Indi Hodgson-Johnston: On December 17, the Sea Shepherd vessel “Bob Barker” stated it had “arrested” Thunder in the rich fishing area of the Kerguelen Plateau, near Antarctica.

The captain of Bob Barker had no authority to conduct the purported “citizen’s arrest”, as such a law does not exist on the high seas.

Captain Paul Watson: The captain and the crew of the Thunder responded very positively to the announcement that they had been “arrested.” They fled and abandoned all of their gill net gear in the Southern Ocean. Not the kind of reaction that would be expected from a legal operation. Sea Shepherd’s authority was recognized simply by the fact that the Thunder responded to Sea Shepherd’s declared authority. The Thunder was intercepted on the Banzare Bank and not on the Kerguelen Plateau.

SEA SHEPHERD’S HIGH SEAS ARRESTS COUNTER-PRODUCTIVE, SAY EXPERTS

Indi Hodgson-Johnston: By Paul Watson’s own admission on his Facebook page this “arrest” was intended solely to generate publicity and media attention.

Captain Paul Watson: It did indeed accomplish that objective.

Indi Hodgson-Johnston: While Bob Barker followed Thunder, another Sea Shepherd vessel, Sam Simon, remained to recover Thunder’s gillnets.

CCAMLR’s Convention on the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources controlling fisheries in the Southern Ocean technically deems Sam Simon to have been “illegally fishing” as its crew raised the abandoned nets, since raising nets is by definition fishing.

Captain Paul Watson: And here we have the reason that the public is confused and outraged by regulatory agencies like CCAMLR. What they are saying here is that Sea Shepherd should not have hauled in the nets, and instead we should have left the nets to continue their destruction of bio-diversity. If Sea Shepherd had done this, as these experts are saying we should have done, we would have been leaving 100 kilometers of ghost net in the sea that would continue to extinguish the lives of marine creatures for years to come. To accuse Sea Shepherd of illegal fishing for retrieving a weapon of mass biological and ecological destruction is simply insane.

Indi Hodgson-Johnston: The Netherlands is not a full party to the convention due to lack of fishing interests in the area. As a responsible fishing nation it has adopted the convention’s legal measures, however Dutch vessels cannot be licensed to fish by CCAMLR.

Captain Paul Watson: We are not aware of any Dutch-registered vessel fishing in the Southern Ocean. What they are insinuating is that the Sam Simon is by definition a fishing vessel by retrieving the abandoned net. Again this is the warped perspective of people whose grasp of the reality of the situation does not extend outside their book of regulations.

Indi Hodgson-Johnston: This purely technical situation does not take away from the valuable information gathered by the “Sam Simon” on the destructive nature of gillnetting, a practice prohibited by CCAMLR.

Captain Paul Watson: Well, we are happy to be of service. The crew of the Sam Simon documented, weighed and measured each toothfish recovered, in addition to documenting the by-catch.

Indi Hodgson-Johnston: As Nigeria is not a member of CCAMLR, Thunder is not directly bound by its rules.

Captain Paul Watson: Precisely why Sea Shepherd has decided to make the Thunder abide by the rules. The Thunder seems to be abiding by the rules now.

Indi Hodgson-Johnston: Nigeria is, however, a party to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea and its related instruments. This law is far less enforceable.

Captain Paul Watson: Sea Shepherd just enforced the law. Regardless of what happens should the Thunder find a port of refuge, they lost their gear, their catch and their season’s profits and the word “profit” is something they very much understand.

Indi Hodgson-Johnston: As a flag state, Nigeria has an obligation to cooperate with regional organisations such as CCAMLR, and their vessels are required to have licenses and fish responsibly.

Captain Paul Watson: We do not expect a country that hosts internet scams, massacres of civilians, and the bush meat trade to cooperate. This is precisely why Sea Shepherd has had to intervene. Besides, Nigeria’s involvement is seemingly restricted to receiving the money for the flag that allows the Thunder to go to sea. They will not be championing the “rights” of the criminals who fly their flags; well, unless they receive another sizable bribe. 

Indi Hodgson-Johnston: The broadly worded nature of these laws, however, is such that they are rarely able to result in conviction in an international tribunal or domestic court.

Captain Paul Watson: Sea Shepherd is not interested in a conviction. Sea Shepherd is interesting in putting the poachers out of business.

Indi Hodgson-Johnston: Broad interpretations of international law are common.

Sea Shepherd has claimed “the longest pursuit in history”. They are not in “hot pursuit” of Thunder by any legal definition, such as the one satisfied by the Viarsa chase in 2003.

Captain Paul Watson: The Captain of the Thunder seems to think it’s a pursuit. He is certainly acting like he is being pursued. He tried to lose the Bob Barker in thick ice. He tried to lose the Bob Barker in the storms and both times he failed. He has not caught a fish in over a month and appears to have no destination. I guess it’s fair to say they are no longer in “hot” pursuit because over the last few weeks the Thunder has been fleeing at a top speed of three knots, in an effort to conserve fuel, with the hopeless belief they will be able to outlast the Bob Barker at sea.

Indi Hodgson-Johnston: With no authority and no coastal waters involved at its inception, the Bob Barker is merely following Thunder.

Captain Paul Watson: Yes the Bob Barker will continue to follow the Thunder. The poachers tried to head to Mozambique but when Sea Shepherd notified Mozambique, that nation issued an arrest order for the Thunder. Wherever the Thunder goes, Sea Shepherd will make sure that the world knows if any port gives these criminals sanctuary.

Indi Hodgson-Johnston: The CCAMLR black-listing of the Thunder, and the issuing of an Interpol Purple Notice is reflective of this delicate line between prosecution and perpetuating legal frustration.

Captain Paul Watson: Sea Shepherd is making that delicate line a little less delicate.

Indi Hodgson-Johnston: The Purple Notice is not the imminent arrest warrant Sea Shepherd claims. Rather it is a call for authorities to monitor the Thunder’s modus operandi. This is in order to gather evidence and intelligence from national jurisdictions to ensure that when the legal pieces are in place, a conviction is almost assured.

Captain Paul Watson: Sea Shepherd has never claimed that the Purple Notice was an imminent arrest warrant. However, Mozambique made it clear that they would issue an arrest warrant.

Indi Hodgson-Johnston: Should the Bob Barker follow Thunder into a port, their demands for justice will likely fall short of expectations.

Captain Paul Watson: Hardly. Sea Shepherd never has great expectations for action by any government. Sea Shepherd has already achieved a major victory in depriving the Thunder of its nets, catch and profits.

Indi Hodgson-Johnston: While some ports can, and have, refused Thunder entry, prosecution is difficult, and cases involving transnational fishing are long and frustrating.

Captain Paul Watson: Yes, tell me about it. Sea Shepherd is still fighting Maltese tuna poachers in court from the time in 2011, when our crew freed 800 illegally caught tuna from their nets off the coast of Libya. If what we do was easy, everyone would be doing it.

Indi Hodgson-Johnston: Technicalities involving jurisdiction, the admissibility of evidence, and the interpretation of laws are what the lawyers of these unscrupulous vessel operators thrive on.

Captain Paul Watson: Which is precisely why Sea Shepherd is effective. The poachers know how to deal with issues involving jurisdiction, admissibility of evidence and the interpretation of the laws but they do not seem to be able to counter Sea Shepherd’s intervention.

Indi Hodgson-Johnston: It’s unlikely evidence from Sea Shepherd would be admissible in court due to lack of authority and bias.

Captain Paul Watson:  Sea Shepherd has GPS location evidence, documentation of the nets being set, documentation of the catch, and evidence of the nets. We have plenty of evidence. As for bias, of course we have a bias. We’re against poaching, and that is a bias we wish that more governments would demonstrate.

Indi Hodgson-Johnston: Penalties are often no deterrent. Owners of such vessels easily pay fines or avoid them by taking advantage of lax monitoring and control by flag states.

Captain Paul Watson: We agree. The Thunder was released by Indonesia last year, with their catch, after they paid a fine of $90,000. That fine was a fraction of their profits. Sea Shepherd has, however, deprived them of their entire season’s worth of profits.

Indi Hodgson-Johnston: Should Thunder be impounded, another vessel will spring up in its place.

Captain Paul Watson: By this logic, no one should do anything about the issue. It is a very defeatist perspective. If they replace it with another vessel, Sea Shepherd will simply hunt down the replacement vessel to deprive them of their profits once again.

Indi Hodgson-Johnston: The issues unfolding in the Southern Ocean are steeped with frustration for activists and academics alike. However, improvements in the practice of international law, coupled with improved technology and awareness, ultimately will close the net around the insidious illegal fishing industry.

Captain Paul Watson: Sea Shepherd has not found Operation Icefish to be very frustrating at all. In fact, it has been an enormous success. Poaching operation intercepted and halted, nets confiscated, profits lost and the issue given international attention, including the linking of these poachers with European Union connections in Spain and links to European Union subsidies.

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Dr Julia Jabour is a Senior Lecturer at the Institute for Marine and Antarctic Studies. She has been writing and lecturing on polar law and policy for 20 years. Julia has taught in universities in Malaysia, Vietnam, Iceland and New Zealand. She has visited Antarctica six times and has attended Antarctic Treaty consultative meetings as an adviser to the Australian delegation.

Indi Hodgson-Johnston is a PhD candidate at IMAS, and a lecturer and tutor at the University of Tasmania. She is a legal adviser to an international firm, and has worked at sea in various maritime security roles.

Talking Point: Tough fighting crime on high seas

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