Sea Shepherd to Return to the Cod Wars

By Captain Paul Watson

Back in 1994, I engaged in a debate with Canadian Fisheries Minister Brian Tobin. During the course of the debate, I offered a solution to stopping the foreign drag trawlers on the Nose and the Tail of the Grand Banks.

Why not discourage bottom trawling by sinking some eco-sanitized boats, automobiles, metallic and concrete structures on the fishing grounds? Doing so would prevent the setting of the trawls and at the same time would provide much needed habitat for fish recovery on the Banks.

Tobin's response was that the idea was ridiculous and would prevent the Canadian trawlers from returning to the Banks after the Cod populations recovered. Tobin was, of course, absolutely convinced that the moratorium would result in cod stock recovery.

It is the opinion of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, based on nearly three decades of observation of the Newfoundland fishing industry, that the destruction of the Cod was caused by three factors.

1. Over fishing: the unrestricted over-exploitation of fish on the Grand Banks by Canadian and foreign drag trawlers.

2. Destruction of habitat: the virtual scouring of the bottom of the sea across the Grand Banks. Bottom trawlers have laid waste or destroyed essential fish habitat.

3. Mismanagement: The incompetence of the Canadian Department of Fisheries and Oceans and their unwillingness to address the issues of over fishing and destruction of habitat.

The important thing is to find solutions. Scape-goating the seals will do nothing but buy time for further mis-management by the Department of Fisheries and Oceans. What is needed are real solutions for restoration of a healthy eco-system on the Grand Banks.

The single most important step that can be taken towards this solution is to place structures on the Banks, beginning with the Nose and the Tail. These structures will provide sheltered habitat for fish recovery and prevent the utilization of bottom trawlers. The net-rippers can work. The fish need shelter.

The second step is to encourage low-tech fishing techniques. Heavy gear utilization should be replaced with a hook and line fishery. This is the method used on the Grand Banks for hundreds of years prior to the destructive deployment of the trawls. This approach will create more fishing jobs due to a reduced take of fish. The cost of Cod will be increased, and rightfully so. A market for fish will not be jeopardized by cost. The scarcity of Cod justifies higher prices.

The restoration of small family fishing practices could create increased jobs by taking less fish with a higher price tag for the fish. This can be accomplished by utilizing all fish caught in high-end markets. In this way, a fisherman need only catch and sell a small number of fish to earn a healthy income.

At the same time, a new and healthier approach needs to be taken towards harmoniously utilizing resources from a maritime eco-systems. Towards this end, it must be understood that there are more than just three species utilizing this eco-system. The Department of Fisheries and Oceans acts as if there are only three factors - humans, seals and cod. However even a simplified biodiversity chart illustrates the interrelationship and interaction of hundreds of species, each and every one impacting on every other species. It must also be understood that it is the human species that is the major disrupting species, primarily because it is the only non-marine species and a relatively recent predator on the Banks.

The seals, for example, perform a very important role in maintaining a healthy eco-system. The value of this contribution by the seals can be observed historically. Cod fish populations are now less than 1% of the numbers five centuries ago when there were also millions more harp, hood, grey, and harbor seals. One of the reasons for this is that seals eat many species of fish. The largest predation of Cod is caused by other species of fish, including older cod. Seals impact the populations of predatory fish, taking middle sized fish primarily and not taking much smaller or much larger fish. This allows for the younger and smaller fish to increase their chances of growing and it allows the larger and older fish to survive by decreasing energetic competition from the mid-size fish. The seals are a gauntlet that the fish have run for tens of thousands of years and this has evolved as a benefit for healthy and viable fish populations.

The only factor that has been introduced into the natural balance of prey and predator relations has been the introduction of what amounts to an introduction of an exotic species. In this case the exotic species is an overpopulated terrestrial primate armed with highly technological tools for mass extraction.

Another contribution of seals is that their numbers are a source of nutrients from fecal material, annual afterbirth, and natural demise. Seal bodies provide protein for zoo-plankton and small fish and invertebrates. This is a formidable source of nutrients and these nutrients are part of the foundation of a large plankton base of the maritime food pyramid.

Humans on the other hand, extract but don't significantly replenish. It can be argued that fish offal is a source of replenishment but this material would have been returned to the system without human intervention. The only new materials introduced by humans are hydro-carbon pollutants like spilled oil, fuel, and plastics, chemicals, pesticides and agricultural runoffs.

Today in Canada, there is serious consideration being given to the need for dropping net-ripping structures on the Banks. If Canadian bureaucratic history is a guide, this talk will continue without action for a few more years. After all, a Royal Commission will most likely be needed and there will be challenges and counter challenges, court cases, and endless editorializing and debate. During this time the Cod will decline further.

Thus, it makes sense for non-governmental organizations to initiate this program.

The Sea Shepherd Conservation Society intends to do just this. In 2004, the Sea Shepherd flagship R/V Farley Mowat will transport some experimental structure to the Nose or the Tail of the Grand Banks of Newfoundland. This structure will be designed to provide shelter for marine eco-systems and to rip nets. It will be dropped in an unmarked area in order to act as a deterrent to foreign trawlers still active in these areas.

We are long past the time for the need to take action on this issue. There must be an initiation of this idea and the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society intends to initiate the action.

There is nothing illegal about dropping structure outside of the limits of Canadian territorial waters. If Canada seeks to physically stop us, as the government attempted to do when Sea Shepherd chased trawlers from the Banks in 1993, the question can be asked: Why does the Canadian government act to stop conservation measures outside of the 200 mile limit, but takes no action to stop exploitation activities?

In 1993, the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society ship Cleveland Amory intervened against Cuban and Spanish drag trawl operations on the Nose and Tail of the Grand Banks. The Cuban trawler Rio Las Casa was ordered to leave the Banks by myself as Captain of the Cleveland Amory.

During this time, the Cleveland Amory was shadowed closely by ships of the Canadian Coast Guard and the Canadian Department of Fisheries and Oceans. Although I did not cause any property damage nor did I cause any injury, I was arrested by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and charged with three counts of Mischief and some lesser offenses. My arrest took place outside of the territorial limit.

My trail in 1995 revealed numerous hypocrisies by the Canadian government and I was acquitted of the charges. It was a great waste of Canadian tax dollars and it was interesting to note that Canada paid the expenses of the Cuban captain and some crew to fly to Newfoundland to testify against a Canadian conservationist who had interfered with an illegal foreign drag trawl operation.

After my 1993 intervention, Brian Tobin orchestrated a grand charade with the Spanish trawler Estai that made it appear that Canada was getting tough with the foreign trawlers. Lost in the self congratulatory back-patting and patriotic cheering over the token intervention was the fact that Canada financially compensated the owners of the Estai for lost revenues and apologized for the action. And, after all was said and done, the trawlers continued to plunder the banks, and Tobin went on to profit from the feel-good publicity to become the big enchilada in Newfoundland.

I believe it was our 1993 intervention that motivated the Tobin intervention shortly thereafter. Canada had to be seen as doing something on the heels of an attempt by a conservation organization to take on a responsibility that Canada was avoiding.

It is now time for the Canadian government to be motivated again. An action must be initiated to expose the Canadian government's failure to act once again.

The Canadian Coast Guard can be counted on to cite the dropping of the structures as a threat to navigation and vessel safety. The Mounted Police will be called upon to protect the safety of these vessels and most likely I will be arrested again and charged with some absurd counts of Mischief once more. The Canadian taxpayers will be asked to pay the bill for yet another ridiculous trial for which I will most like be exonerated and for which the Crown will appeal up the ladder in a glorious waste of time and resources.

But hey, it's a thankless dirty job but someone's got to do it.

Captain Paul Watson
Founder and President
Sea Shepherd Conservation Society
National Director - Sierra Club