Ship Visit: Sea Shepherd Shows the Future of Fisheries Protection

August 8, 2019

In late July, Gabonese law enforcement officers boarded and seized the Haixin 27, a fishing trawler long engaged in illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing. For operating in Gabon’s territorial waters without fishing logbook, Haixin 27 was escorted to a port for legal proceedings. It was not the first time in recent months that a West African nation’s military, fisheries enforcement, or other law enforcement organization successfully intercepted, boarded, seized, or deterred illegal fishing trawlers. In April, for example, Liberia arrested the illegal fishing trawler Solevant, and throughout the spring, other ships were forced out of the waters off Namibia. Driven by enhanced maritime capabilities — the increased availability of ships — West African nations have more successfully cracked down on illegal fishing in recent years. Coastal nations have suffered from a lack of patrol ships, which prevents them from improving fisheries policing. For instance, the Pacific island nation of Palau fields only one small boat, with two more planned. Just a few offshore patrol vessels can make a significant difference in a nation’s ability to deter illegal fishing, which becomes evident when one compares gross tonnage of the fleets of various nation states. That’s where Sea Shepherd comes in.

(Figure 1. Compiled by the author from U.S. Naval Institute’s Combat Fleets of the World and Sea Shepherd for presentation at the Naval War College Center of Irregular Warfare and Armed Groups working group, June 2019. Any errors are those of the author and not Combat Fleets.)

In part, the improvement in West African fisheries policing follows recent agreements the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society signed with Gabon, Namibia, and Liberia to provide ships and crews to these under-resourced nations. This public-private maritime partnership between a maritime non-government organization and nation-states is kick-starting a new era of maritime security, in particular changing how fisheries protection can be conducted.

As a contributing editor at War on the Rocks, I recently took the opportunity to go aboard one of Sea Shepherd’s ships. The crew, like any navy, coast guard, or super-yacht crew, is busy with maintenance, but all are welcoming and happy to discuss their backgrounds and roles. The smell of freshly baked bread wafts up topside, along with a hint of fresh paint from the interior. There is no privacy on this ship.

It is late July. Southwest Harbor, one of the small towns that dots the Maine coast, is becalmed, but the state is spared the hundred-degree heat wave affecting most of the east coast on this day. The harbor is located on Mount Desert Island, a popular tourist destination for cruise ships to Bar Harbor or recreational vehicles and campers to Acadia National Park. From the old wooden dock, one sees a variety of lobster boats, sailboats, and yachts tied up in slips. The Sea Shepherd ship isn’t visible, but the harbormaster’s shack points us to the farthest pier.

When I lived aboard my sloop in the late 1990s, I learned to never arrive empty-handed to someone else’s boat. With that in mind, I stopped along my trip to pick up a bag of groceries for the vegan Sea Shepherd crew, which actually provides the ship an advantage when entering ports since they are not subject to inspections for dairy or other products. Keeping in the spirit of War on the Rocks, the grocery bag includes something extra for the captain. At the end of one of the finger piers, I see a light gray bow with the image of actress Brigitte Bardot, whose work with Sea Shepherd has been recognized by a ship named after her.

(The Brigette Bardot’s bow. Photo by the author.)

Most of the hull is hidden behind a wall of pilings, but to boaters entering the harbor, the Brigitte Bardot is impossible to miss. The 115-foot trimaran looks more like a spaceship than like any of the work or pleasure boats in Southwest Harbor. Twenty years ago, the then-newly constructed ship circumnavigated the world in 74 days. It joined Sea Shepherd a decade later. Like older U.S. Navy ships, the Brigitte Bardot is starting to show its age. However, the crew — most of whom sign up for three-month stints at a time — conduct constant exterior and interior maintenance to keep the ship looking its best.

The operations officer welcomed us aboard before introducing the 37-year old captain, who spends time with us topside. He has been aboard the Bardot for less than a week during this stint, but he commanded the ship on at least five previous campaigns in Italy, Antigua, Trinidad, Peru, and Costa Rica. The ship has just returned from a brief anti-whaling campaign off Iceland, where it exposed illegal whaling through the media — possibly a more effective tactic than ramming whaling ships. Icelandic public approval of whaling has declined in recent decades, in part owing to the country’s growing tourism industry. As one Bardot crew member told me, “tourists on [whale watch tours] don’t like to see the carcass of a whale.”

The ship is currently preparing for a lengthier campaign west of the Galapagos. There, the crew will observe, record, and report illegal fishing, as they have done in the past. Bardot is fast. It has a reported top speed of 27 knots, but the captain said he has seen it top 30. After the completion of the crew swap, further maintenance, and additional training on safety and weather monitoring, the ship will make the 2,500-nautical mile trek from Southwest Harbor to the Panama Canal in a single voyage — well within its estimated 3,500-nautical mile range. From there, the Bardot will return to Pacific waters west of the Galapagos, where it will again conduct surveillance of the massive squid boat fleet. “At night, it grows to a city of 900 ships,” the captain explains, and “the glow from the squid boats is like New York City.” It is an apt analogy supported by satellite imagery, which is able to track illegal fishing by comparing light to the lack of Automatic Identification System transponders. At times, as with the organization’s work off West Africa and Mexico, partnering organizations such as SkyTruth and Oceana have joined the ship or shared information, like that satellite imagery. The crew will film and report any illegal activity, such as ships harvesting shark fins or evading the law by changing their name and turning off or falsifying their Automatic Identification System transponders. Some of these ships may remain at sea for years following the squid migration — the captain likens it to strip-mining the sea.

Along with Sea Shepherd’s head crew coordinator, the captain selects the crew for this campaign. Sea Shepherd maintains a database of some 3,000 volunteer applicants. “We want people who are patient and have a keenness — they have to want to be here,” he says. Some, like the chief engineer from Portugal, are extremely experienced, but the organization possesses a plethora of unexperienced volunteers. The ship hopes for certain skill sets, such as those possessed by mechanics, medics, electricians, radio technicians, and qualified bridge crew. The crew aboard today represents the international composition of each of Sea Shepherd’s ships. The cook is Italian. Another crewman once served in the Norwegian Coast Guard. Others are from the United States, Australia, and New Zealand. What binds them is the mission: immediate direct action to prevent illegal fishing. Aside from the fly bridge and the bridge, the Bardot isn’t spacious. Two port and starboard staterooms and the galley provide the only spaces for the crew to gather when not on duty. For a three-month campaign, the area is incredibly cramped. “We learn to get along really fast,” the captain notes. The lack of space can prove difficult at sea, since the ship was designed for speed and not maneuverability. The captain continues, “We get tossed around a lot and when you’re not watching the waves, it makes it pretty rough going if you’re not expecting it.”

(The Brigitte Bardot’s Italian chef makes lunch for the crew. Photo by the author.)

Wherever the Brigitte Bardot goes, it engenders trepidation among local fishermen. Even in Maine waters, lobstermen suspect its presence owes to recent issues with lobstering regulations. A recent federal regulation seeks to reduce lobster buoy lines that may or may not be resulting in the deaths of right whales, particularly in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. Their concerns dissipate when the captain explains the consequences of illegal fishing that impact legitimate fishermen. That Bardot is just there temporarily en route to the Pacific is an added reassurance.

When the Bardot does arrive on station, it is most likely to receive warnings over the radio. “‘No follow’ is the most common phrase they’ll use in broken English,” according to the captain. At times, as in the past, the Sea Shepherd ships may close to within twenty yards of the fishing vessels to take photos and assess whether or not their actions are illegal. The Bardot will always be at risk some 1,000 miles from the nearest populated land and too far from maritime help. It is not unprecedented that Sea Shepherd ships are fired upon, as they were last year, when embarked Mexican law enforcement officers returned fire against poachers.

(View from the bridge. Photo by the author.)

That is the tactical threat to the Bardot, but there may be a greater strategic challenge to Sea Shepherd’s success with maritime partnerships. Political and economic maneuvering has been used to deter Sea Shepherd before. In 2011, the organization signed a memorandum of agreement with the Pacific island nation of the Republic of Palau, but Palau terminated the agreement a few weeks later when Japan offered to provide a security vessel of its own. This model could be followed by others, and it is particularly relevant in light of a recent report on the level of Chinese investments in Sub-Saharan ports. Chinese consumption of fish continues to rise, requiring its fishing fleet to expand global operations. Given its need for this fundamental resource, China may turn to those countries currently working with Sea Shepherd to terminate those agreements and offer coast guard ships of its own. In recent years, Taiwan has lost diplomatic recognition by several Caribbean and Latin American nations in favor of the People’s Republic of China. Agreements can also be susceptible to other factors, such as corrupt personnel, or senior maritime officials who feel that these agreements threaten their own mission or national sovereignty.

Sea Shepherd’s efforts at maritime partnerships may be out of scope for United States military strategists, but the organization is on the frontline of a battle for a strategic resource: marine protein. The fight viscerally affects coastal states, and also goes to the heart of international law. Sea Shepherd provides a longer-term presence in African littoral waters in partnership with these nations. With a global operating budget of approximately $10 million per year, Sea Shepherd is proving that maritime public-private partnerships to combat illegal and unregulated fishing can be done in a cost-effective and creative manner. If the United States cannot learn from this creative model, then its resource-challenged partners are at further economic risk.

Claude Berube, Ph.D., teaches at the U.S. Naval Academy and is a contributing editor at War on the Rocks. The views expressed are his and not those of the Academy, Navy, or U.S. government.  Twitter @cgberube