Homopechephobia - Politics, Corporate Welfare, and the World Crisis in the Fisheries

Commentary by Paul Watson
Sea Shepherd Conservation Society

Homo -  peche -  phobia, an irrational fear of fishermen.  An ailment suffered by politicians.

For as long as I can remember, the Canadian government has been afraid of fishermen.

The politicians always seem to cower in mortal terror every time a fisherman makes a demand or a threat.

Because of this, Canada has had a string of incompetent jellyfish posing as men who have served as Ministers of Fisheries. Without exception, from Romeo LeBlanc to Geoff Regan, they have put the interest of fishermen front and foremost and the interests of fish and the rest of Canadians last.

Whatever the fishermen want, the fishermen seem to get. They have been limited not by laws, but by their own greed. When they wipe out one fishery, they move onto another - they are the Borgs of the sea, wiping out life. Resistance to their demands is futile.

Of course, fishermen around the world are no different, nor are the politicians. It's always a case of "Yes, Mr. Fisherman, sir, whatever you want sir, just please vote for me, sir."

The fishermen call the shots in Ecuador where they are rapidly trying to destroy the Galapagos National Park. They call the shots in Europe, in Africa, in Asia, and in North and South America. When bribery and corruption fail, they simply turn to poaching without much fear of any real governmental reprisals. Enforcement is a token game overall.

Patagonia and Antarctic Toothfish are endangered yet governments keep issuing licenses. Why? Because the fishermen want the licenses and the usual palms are greased.

Back in the early 1980's, I warned the Canadian Minister of Fisheries Pierre DuBane that the cod were being wiped out. I was, of course, ignored. The Canadian Department of Fisheries, which I have referred to for years as the Doofus Department of Fishy Business, argued that they had the best scientists in the world and that all of their computer models, field studies, and staff of experts agreed that it was a healthy and sustainable fishery. Then in 1992, the Canadian dragger fleet returns with empty fish holds, and everyone in government is surprised and shocked.

In the Canadian government tradition of doing too little, too late, they slapped on a two-year moratorium on cod fishing, then a five-year moratorium, and then a 10-year moratorium, until they announced it would be a permanent moratorium.

But strangely, cod fish remained on the menu of restaurants in Canada. The Canadian fish companies began to buy from Russian draggers fishing in waters now off limits to Canadian draggers but with licenses from Canada. And every time it was announced that there was a small recovery in cod, Canada would announce a day opening for Canadians to go get some cod. Why? Because the fisherman demanded it.

Of course, the fishermen were not responsible for the diminishment of the cod, so Canada put the blame on the seals and initiated the return of the largest mass slaughter of marine mammals on Earth - the obscenity they call the annual seal "hunt" which is, in reality, a walk through a nursery whacking defenseless seal pups with a baseball bat.

Now we have the Japanese killing dolphins, Californians killing sea lions and pelicans, and South Africans killing fur seals out of fear the animals are stealing "their" fish.

When my crew interfered against the Canadian seal hunt we had the book thrown at us. When my crew interfered against foreign draggers on the Grand Banks, Canada spent a few million trying to crucify me in court. My only crime was to approach within a half a nautical mile of a seal for which I was sentenced to 21 months, fined $75,000, had my ship confiscated, and ordered to stay out of Eastern Canada for three years. Oh, and I was also ordered by a Quebec judge to not correspond directly or indirectly with any journalist anywhere in the world for three years on any subject. I did not hurt anyone. I did not even damage any property.

On the other hand, when Nova Scotia fishermen seized a government fisheries boat, kidnapped the officers, and then burned the boat to the waterline, the fishermen were sentenced to community service.

In 1993, when I ordered Cuban and Spanish draggers off the Grand Banks, I was arrested by Canada and placed on trial for numerous counts of criminal mischief although I had not damaged any property nor hurt anyone. I was facing two life sentences plus 10 years, and despite millions of dollars and 45 government witnesses, I was acquitted of all the charges.

Apparently the Cuban fleet took my order seriously and left the area, reporting a 35 million dollar loss of revenues. For some strange reason, the Canadian government felt obligated to protect the interest of Cuban poachers from a Canadian fish conservationist.

So after destroying the cod fishery and diminishing every other fishery on the East coast, after destroying the salmon fishery on the West coast, the Canadian Department of Fisheries has demonstrated conclusively that it is the single most incompetent branch of government in the country.

The drag trawlers of the world have left a trail of unbelievable destruction in their wake. Coral formations shattered and broken, benthic terrain scoured and scarred, and fish habitat destroyed. The bottoms of our oceans have become deserts because of the impact of massive drag trawler operations.

These machines of mass destruction must be banned before they cause total and irreparable damage to the oceans sub maritime habitats.

Now Canada and the European Union have joined forces to oppose a United Nations ban on bottom trawling. Canadian Fisheries Minister Geoff Regan is calling for more studies and absolute scientific verification before even discussing the possibility of a ban. In fact, Canada is using the same lame arguments to defend bottom trawling as they accuse the U.S. of using to defend their refusal to sign the Kyoto Protocol.

Geoff Regan is, of course, the elected Member of Parliament for Halifax, Nova Scotia, where the fisherman's vote goes along way to influence his decisions. This has been a recurring problem for Canadian Fisheries Ministers. Most of them have come from Newfoundland, Quebec, or British Colombia - all fishing provinces. I have argued for decades that the responsible thing would be to appoint a Minister from Manitoba or another province that does not border the sea to remove the conflict of interest and to bring a little objectivity to the office and to represent all Canadians - not just the handful that elect him personally.

In April of  2005, my crew and I deployed 16 net-rippers on the Nose of the Grand Banks. These devices are designed to rip any bottom trawl deployed. We need to build and deploy thousands of these steel and concrete net rippers to both rip nets and to restore some structure to provide fish with shelter to replace the natural shelters that we have crushed and scattered across the bottom.

The European and Canadian opposition to banning bottom trawling is motivated by greed, short-term gain, and arrogance.

In communities around the world, small subsistence fishing operations are being forced out of existence by the corporate trawlers. Norwegian trawlers alone have put over one million Indian fishermen out of work by scouring the offshore areas of India. Japan has impoverished Mexican communities by literally wiping out the fish in the Sea of Cortez. Canada has turned the once magnificently rich Grand Banks into a biological wasteland.

All over the world, fisheries are collapsing and the fish are disappearing. Instead of doing anything about the problem, wealthy nations like Canada are more concerned with battling the United Nations to further the continued destruction of ocean bottoms by industrial drag trawlers.

It's eco-vandalism of the worst order and it is being done so that the politicians can satisfy the demands of their corporate donors and their fishing community voters.

I was raised in an Eastern Canadian lobster fishing community. I have personally witnessed the greed of the industry and the steady decline of the fisheries. I don't look on fishermen as special, I look on them for what they are, special interest groups trying to promote their own self interests at the expense of the environment.

An East coast group called the Irish Descendants has a song lamenting the collapse of the fisheries. The singer sadly recites, "I wonder how an ocean turns as lifeless as a stone." This follows the verse bragging how the boats came in for years "loaded down from stem to stern."

His answer is a demand for the government to fix the problem. The singer rejects changing his life style when he sings, "Now I hear some people say we would be better off to stay ashore and train for jobs outside the fishery. But wouldn't I look like a fool to be traipsing off to school after 40 years of living off the sea?"

The only reason fishing continues is because it receives such massive subsidies. Worldwide, ten billion dollars more is spent to support commercial fisheries than the entire world industry takes in. It is one of the biggest corporate welfare programs on the planet, and without government subsidy it will collapse under the realities of the market.

The fisherman may think he looks like a fool to go traipsing off to school but the bigger fools are the politicians who are selling out the future and destroying marine eco-systems to keep alive an industry that has no business surviving if it can't survive on its own.

The simple plain fact is this. There are not enough fish in the sea to sustainably continue to meet the demands of consumers.

All corporate fishing must be banned. All subsidized fishing must be banned. All bottom draggers, driftnets, and longlines should be banned.

If someone wants to eat a fish, they should go catch it - one on one without massive by-catch loss, without polluting the seas and without destroying the habitat.

We are subsidizing fishing boats to wipe out entire populations of fish to feed to cattle, pigs, chickens, sheep, and housecats. We have, in effect, turned all these domestic animals into primary aquatic predators.

We need to see the end of corporate welfare fishing, and we need to see the end of spineless politicians who are beholden to the fishing industry for bribes and fishermen for votes.

The oceans are dying before our eyes and our leaders are running scared from their fear of fishermen. In so doing, they are neglecting their responsibility to secure the future of the seas.