Pirates of Activism
Illegal fishing, oil tanker spillages, floating fields of plastic bottles spanning kilometres: We have caused a lot of damage to our oceans in recent decades—damage with far-reaching consequences for marine life, for the balance of Earth’s ecosystems, and for humanity itself. The ocean is essential to the lives of billions of people, whether directly or indirectly. That’s why the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society has been dedicated to fighting the destruction of habitats and the slaughter of wild animals in the world’s seas for over 40 years now.
Founded in the USA in 1977 by Paul Watson, who also brought Greenpeace to life, the international charitable organisation has attracted attention, often with very daring actions on the world’s oceans: blocking the path of illegal whale poachers on the high seas, for instance. As this had previously led to the ramming or sinking of ships, Sea Shepherd earned itself a reputation for piracy among NGOs, although their diverse initiatives are now implemented completely within the remit of the law. COMPANION spoke to Nicolai Duda, Treasurer and Fundraising Director at Sea Shepherd Germany. He talked about the growing interest in environmental protection, fashionable activism, modern slavery in the fishing industry and the indeterminable origins of frozen fish.
COMPANION: In the ballad Haifischbaby, France Gall sings as a baby shark: ‘I like you so much I could eat you up.’ How do you feel about fish?
Nicolai Duda: I’m actually a fan of sharks. [laughs] I generally like orcas, killer whales—the classics. I wouldn’t eat them, though. Many volunteers and employees at Sea Shepherd are vegetarian or vegan, but this isn’t mandatory. However, in this job, you should probably avoid eating fish.
And in general? Is there actually such a thing as fair trade fish?
At Sea Shepherd, we believe that fair trade fish does not currently exist. Industrial fishing causes a lot of damage. At the same time, consumption has grown so much that we have completely tapped out our own fish stocks in the Mediterranean, North and Baltic Seas. Therefore, Europeans are also fishing off the coast of Africa, so there can be no talk of sustainability.
Is fishing inherently wrong?
From a moral point of view? From an animal conservation perspective, each person must form their own opinions about whether fishing is ethically justifiable or not.
Let’s take a fishing village, for example, where the residents have sustained themselves by fishing for hundreds of years. Do you believe that they are in the wrong?
No, I don’t. We are actually currently supporting local fishermen on the west coast of Africa because we want to tackle unauthorised and industrial fishing. 40 percent of all fishing there is illegal. This causes great damage to the local economy. We are trying to help the local community to be able to make an adequate living again. First, people need to be helped out of poverty. Then we can consider other prospects, possibly even without fishing at all.
What kind of help do you provide exactly?
We have entered into partnerships with West African states, such as Liberia, Gabon and Namibia, which in concrete terms means that we can have local police officers or even the military on our ships there. Everybody fishing off the coast is inspected—if anybody is found to be fishing illegally or without a licence, they are arrested.
Does that not also affect the ‘small fry’?
Almost everything that is done there falls under the umbrella of organised crime. Moreover, many of those forced to work on the fishing boats are recruited surreptitiously, then have their passports confiscated and receive little to no pay. There are even actual ‘slave islands’ where people are dropped off and picked up again by the next fishing boat that passes. By the way, the fish caught by these boats are consumed here too. On the factory vessels at sea, everything ends up in the same freezer. We therefore no longer have any traceability regarding the origins of the products from this point onwards. No one notices it from here.
What we do notice are global news updates, like the fact that Japan recently started commercial whaling again, 30 years after having stepped down from the International Whaling Commission.
There was commercial whaling going on the whole time! The only thing that has changed is how it’s presented—until now, they had officially been pursuing ‘scientific goals’. However, they are no longer getting very far in Antarctica as we have established a strong counter presence there.
What does that mean?
For 13 years in a row, Sea Shepherd has sailed to Antarctica with the entire fleet and practically positioned themselves between the whales and the harpoon boats. In the past, there had also been some mutual ramming attacks. That’s how we earned our reputation as pirates. However, I want to stress that over the last 40 years of our existence, nobody has been injured or killed. Paul Watson, our founder, always says: ‘I call what we do aggressive non-violence.’ The game of cat and mouse continued until 2013, at which time The Hague Tribunal declared that Japan was acting illegally. Following that, we suspended our patrols for a year and Japanese fishing boats now only operate in local waters. We consider that to be a major success. It means that they are only permitted to fish within the 200-mile zone off the coast of Japan.
So is everything outside of that like the Wild West?
There are laws in place there too, although illegal fishing can still happen, and often goes undetected in the open seas. This is one of the biggest problems we are trying to tackle.
We are facing ecological catastrophes all over the world. Why is marine conservation in particular so important right now?
There are a lot of social factors involved. Illegal fishing destroys the livelihoods of an extremely high number of people, especially in Africa and the Pacific, and plastic in the oceans also plays a part. Even now, the ocean is the primary source of income for over 1 billion people on Earth. Over 700 million people, around 10 percent of the global population, have jobs that involve the sea, either directly or indirectly. The sea is also the source of half of our atmospheric oxygen. If this balance is destroyed, it will affect everybody.
You are no longer concentrating solely on the world’s oceans, but now on local waters too, for example with Sea Shepherd Germany.
That’s right. Sea Shepherd has shown strong growth over the last 10 years, and there are now some country agreements in place as well. We have been present in Germany since 2010. We have an office and a small shop set up in the Vegesack district of Bremen. We even have our own boat: the Emmanuel Bronner, named after the man who donated it.
Historically, Vegesack is notorious for whaling.
And suddenly, there we are! [Smirks mischievously] We thought there could be no better place for Sea Shepherd’s presence in Germany. However, there are no longer any whales there, unlike in the North and Baltic seas, which are home to porpoises. Unfortunately, they are under threat from noise and as bycatch. There are even conservation areas where fishing is permitted. It’s hard to imagine! That’s like allowing people to hunt at a national park.
How do the local arms of the organisation, such as Sea Shepherd Germany, work together with the ‘mothership’?
We put all of the donations we receive into a pot and use them to support our ongoing initiatives across the world. The cost of commissioning an entire fleet of vessels can quickly tally up into the millions, even though many of our boats are staffed by volunteers.
What kinds of volunteers do you attract?
It’s often people in their mid-twenties who have just finished their studies and want to try out something new, while also doing something good for the environment, before they enter the professional world. There are also many people at the end of their careers hoping to find a new path to follow in life, for instance if their children have flown the nest. Many only stay for a short time, but of course, you don’t have to sign on for years and years. However, we have noticed that our volunteers are generally getting younger. The same applies to our donors. They often make small contributions of only a few euros. We are delighted to receive any and all donations—whatever people can afford.
What is the reason for your current support base being younger?
I think it has to do with the fact that kids are experiencing world events in a very different way, due to the internet and social media. Today, we can reach a wider audience with Facebook and Instagram. We have a decent following for a small NGO, by the way. Social commitment resonates with them—when I was 15 or 16, I wouldn’t have been particularly interested in something like this.
Illegal fishing often goes undetected in the open seas. This is one of the biggest problems we are trying to tackle.Nicolai Duda
Is the increased interest among young people another reason for your growth over recent years?
I would say there are several reasons. On the one hand, the topic of marine conservation has become more mainstream, whereas it used to just be something for eco-warriors. You can see it in the major companies that are all making an effort, for example by reducing their plastic consumption. Nowadays, for the sake of their public image alone, businesses can no longer afford not to make a statement about the environment. On the other hand, our initiatives also draw a lot of attention. Then we have supporters with a lot of clout in the media, such as Aerosmith, the Beatsteaks, Pamela Anderson and Pierce Brosnan. When somebody like that is seen in one of our t-shirts, that helps us a lot.
There is a wide range of Sea Shepherd merchandise available. Your pirate logo, the Jolly Roger, is printed on t-shirts, hoodies, baby clothes, thermos flasks and even bamboo cutlery.
Everything is certified Fairtrade and organic. The income from merchandise sales is used to fund our offices and pay our employees. There are actually only four people working for us in Germany. By way of comparison, around 1000 people work for the World Wildlife Fund nationwide. 100 percent of the money donated to Sea Shepherd is invested in our initiatives. That is why we are so grateful for the income we generate with our shop. And the hoodies look pretty cool, too.
It’s also clear that environmental protection is a key topic in the fashion industry at the moment. Many lifestyle brands are flirting with the idea of marine conservation. How seriously should we take that?
That’s a difficult question to answer, especially since a huge and lucrative market has been cultivated around the topics of social commitment and sustainability in recent years. Is it a good thing or a bad thing when a major company, such as [the meat producer] Rügenwalder, brings a vegetarian sausage onto the market? Can it even be sustainable? On the other hand, these big players already have a strong hold on the market, and therefore they have considerable influence over consumers. This might bring people into contact with topics they wouldn’t have otherwise had an interest in. In my opinion, we are currently getting into a habit of saying ‘I’m greener than you.’ But at the same time, every bit helps.
In reality, it’s more complicated. Let’s take plastic, for example, which is a particular problem in oceans. As a consumer, you may struggle to find alternatives on the supermarket shelves.
Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to go completely plastic-free either, but we can at least reduce our usage. I also think that’s what lawmakers are for. Why is it only now that plastic bags are being phased out? No supply, no demand! Germany is lagging far behind there—and we even ship our waste abroad. In reality, less than 10 percent of our waste is recycled. By the way, Sea Shepherd also organises regular beach cleaning campaigns. Even in cities that aren’t coastal, such as Berlin, we are trying to clean up the lakes.
For those who can’t volunteer for you right away, what other ways are there to get involved in marine conservation?
At the very least, you should develop a deeper sense of responsibility for marine conservation matters. This starts with your beach holiday, and even your choice of sunscreen. What many people don’t know is that oxybenzone-based sunscreen is extremely harmful to coral reefs. Even just a few drops can contaminate large volumes of water. You should look for alternatives when shopping. Of course, the first lesson in marine conservation is to not leave any waste on the beach. Another is to avoid dolphinariums. When booking marine activities, such as whale watching, check whether they will use food to attract the animals and whether the anchor will destroy coral reefs. Oh yes, and if you’ve been snorkelling with the fish underwater, could you please give the huge seafood platter a miss afterwards when you’re back on land?
Nicolai actually only wanted to fill the gap between studies and doctorate in a meaningful way when he started as a volunteer at Sea Shepherd Conservation Society in 2013—meanwhile he
has become one of the four permanent employees at the NGO’s German branch, where he has worked as Treasurer and Fundraising Director since 2018.