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Did you give up eating fish for “Plastic Free July”? Chances are you probably didn’t, because no one told you the truth about where most of the plastic in our oceans comes from, and how our meal choices have contributed to it.

Commentary by Sea Shepherd Global

Plastic marine debris is choking our oceans and their inhabitants. Photo by Susie HolstPlastic marine debris is choking our oceans and their inhabitants. Photo by Susie Holst

This July, we were all reminded about the same messages we’ve already heard: invest in reusable water bottles and coffee mugs, swap out plastic shopping bags for a cloth “bag for life”, and refuse single-use plastics, especially straws. The list goes on.

Of course, all of these efforts are worthwhile to incorporate into your daily lives. Plastic waste is clearly one of the most pressing – and visible – issues affecting our oceans and marine wildlife. Humans produce so much plastic each year that it weighs as much as the entire human race combined. And, despite our best efforts to “refuse, reduce, reuse, and recycle,” 91% of plastic waste never gets recycled.

Instead of decomposing or biodegrading as many claim, plastics in the ocean in fact break up into smaller and smaller pieces, eventually becoming microplastics so small the human eye can no longer see. There is no "away" with plastic; every piece of plastic ever produced is still on the planet today. More than 90% of seabirds have plastic in their guts, and researchers are predicting the ocean will contain more plastic than fish in weight by 2050 unless we act now.

But despite what most people think, common consumer plastics like cotton ear buds, throwaway cutlery, and shampoo bottles aren’t actually the biggest culprits.

The single biggest single source of plastic choking out the life in our oceans is made up of purposefully or accidentally lost, discarded, or abandoned fishing nets, ropes, FADs (fish aggregating devices), long lines, and plastic fishing crates and baskets.

Most Dangerous Plastic in Oceans

“At least half of [...ocean plastic waste] is not consumer plastics, which are central to much of the current debate, but fishing gear,” states George Leonard, chief scientist at the Ocean Conservancy.

Approximately 46% of the 79 thousand tons of ocean plastic in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is made up of fishing nets, some as large as football fields, according to the study published in March 2018 in Scientific Reports, which shocked the researchers themselves who expected the percentage to be closer to 20%.

Fishing nets lost, abandoned or discarded at sea – also known as “ghost nets” – can continue killing indiscriminately for decades and decades, entangling or suffocating countless fish, sharks, whales, dolphins, sea turtles, seals and marine birds every year. An estimated 30% percent of the decline in some fish populations is a result of discarded fishing equipment, while more than 70% of marine animal entanglements involve abandoned plastic fishing nets.

A sea lion strangled by fishing gear. Photo by Sea Shepherd.A sea lion strangled by fishing gear. Photo by Sea Shepherd.

Sea Shepherd crew and volunteers on campaigns around the world are daily witnesses to the devastation caused by this fishing gear. On Operation Icefish in 2014, while Sea Shepherd’s Bob Barker chased down the notorious toothfish poaching vessel Thunder for 110 days until they scuttled their own vessel, the crew of the Sam Simon stayed behind in the freezing Southern Ocean, spending weeks hauling in the 72km-long gillnet abandoned by poachers as they fled. On five consecutive campaigns for Operation Milagro in the Sea of Cortez, our crew retrieved over 180km of ghost nets in addition to the illegal fishing nets responsible for killing the critically endangered vaquita porpoise. In 2015 Sea Shepherd France launched Operation Mare Nostrum to remove ghost nets from the Mediterranean Sea, where they even recovered an abandoned trawling net in a protected marine area just off the coast of France where all fishing is prohibited. Last year Sea Shepherd UK launched Operation Ghostnet, an ongoing campaign using small fast boats and divers to remove hazardous ghost nets and other abandoned fishing gear from coastal areas around England, Scotland, and Wales. Operation Siso, Sea Shepherd’s campaign to confiscate illegal fishing gear found off Italy’s Mediterranean coast, was named for the young sperm whale whose migration past the Aeolian Islands ended when he became entangled in a driftnet and died. In August last year, around 300 endangered sea turtles were discovered dead off Mexico’s southern coast, trapped in a single abandoned fishing net.

Sea turtles are doubly affected by abandoned fishing gear because when it washes up on their nesting beaches the mother turtles get trapped when coming to lay their eggs, and their babies can’t climb over the debris to reach the sea once they hatch. Sea Shepherd’s Bob Barker recently helped clear over four tons of marine debris from a remote West African island in Cabo Verde, the third most important nesting beach in the world for loggerhead turtles.

 Abandoned, lost and discarded fishing gear continues killing marine wildlife. Photo by Csaba Tökölyi.

What Can You Do to Take Action?

Your generous donations help Sea Shepherd continue these vital campaigns to remove this deadly fishing gear from our oceans. You can also participate in beach clean-ups (Important note: never try and retrieve abandoned fishing gear from the water yourself, it can be extremely dangerous for you and even harmful for the wildlife trapped in it; alert your local authorities if you spot one).

But wouldn’t it be better to stop this industrial fishing gear from polluting our waters in the first place? We’re working to stop plastic bottles from reaching the waters by finding alternatives and reducing plastic bags by banning them at the supermarket checkout. So how do we stop the flood of abandoned fishing gear in our oceans? Is there really any other way to stop fishing gear from suffocating our seas than by stopping it at the source? Governments can (and should) take all kinds of measures to prevent fishing gear from further polluting the oceans, and Sea Shepherd will continue to hunt down and help stop illegal fishing operations while pulling up illegal fishing gear wherever we encounter it. But each and every consumer has the power to make a difference.

The UK’s Guardian newspaper recently noted the hypocrisy in media condemnation of single-use plastic while “the most important factor… we talk about least.” Is this silence due to mainstream media not wanting to upset the economic interests of the commercial fishing industry, or because by addressing the issue it means consumers will connect the dots…back to themselves?

Is there really a better way of cutting down the demand for fish – and the massive industry it supports – than by reducing or completing cutting fish from our diets? It might be hard to discuss, it might feel like you’re swimming upstream, but it may be the best way for each individual to make the most impact in addition to avoiding single-use plastics. If we really care about the problem of plastic in the oceans, we need to address the issue of fishing gear. And until we come up with better options, that means dropping fish from the menu.

Commentary by Captain Paul Watson

The Serial Killers of the Danish Faroe Islands have murdered 536 Long Finned Pilot Whales and 7 Atlantic White Sided Dolphins so far in 2019.

Murder Most Foul in the Faroe Islands

Why do I call this murder?

First the slaughter is actually called the Grindadráp. In old Nordic this literally translates as the murder of pilot whales. The old Nordic word dráp means murder. It is not used today and the modern Nordic word for murder is morð.

Secondly dolphins and whales are highly intelligent, socially complex, self-aware, sentient living beings. It is my considered opinion that killing a cetacean is an act of murder. Not homicide, but cetacide.

The killings in the Faroe Islands are brutal. The pilot whales or dolphins are driven onto beaches after long chases that are extremely stressful. They are killed with knives and lances and contrary to the ridiculous claims that the whales die within seconds, the fact is, and we have observed this each and every time, the slaughter is gruesomely long and the cetaceans suffer horrendously, thrashing, screaming, convulsing with their hot blood spurting from the vicious gruesome wounds into the cold sea. They die in agony, hearing the painful screams and smelling and tasting the blood of their family members. Mothers seeing their calves slain, pregnant females desperate to escape and many dying while fruitlessly trying to help others to escape.

The Faroese ask why do we call them barbarians? To anyone who has witnessed this slaughter, the answer is simple. Because the slaughter is barbaric. We have seen the crazed looks and heard the laughing as the killers gleefully plunge their lances and knives into the defenseless bodies of their victims. It is savage, cruel and the animals suffer an agonizing death.

The Faroese call this a tradition but humanity needs to evolve from traditions that torture and kill. The Vikings once sacrificed human beings to their gods. That was a tradition.

Murder Most Foul in the Faroe IslandsMany Faroese claim that they must do this for subsistence. That claim is laughingly false. The Faroese have one of the highest per capita incomes on the planet. Anything you can buy in a supermarket in Copenhagen, you can purchase in the Faroe Islands and they have the money to do so. There is no homelessness or poverty in the Faroe Islands.

Why is it that even in the Faroe Islands, you can’t sell pork, beef, or chicken if tainted with heavy metal toxins, yet meat, highly contaminated with methyl-mercury is allowed to be fed to children.

These excessively high contaminant levels have been documented in the area of the Faroe Islands (Dam and Bloch 2000, Nielsen et al. 2000, Sonne et al. 2010). The meat is  considered a health hazard for human consumption. (Simmonds et al. 1994).

The Faroese say that pilot whales are abundant and there is no danger of them going extinct. There is no scientific evidence to back this position. On the contrary, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature states that the current population of Long Finned pilot whales in the North Atlantic is unknown. The Long-finned Pilot Whale is listed on the IUCN Red List as Data Deficient  and the species remains data-poor As such the precautionary principle should apply.

The IUCN notes however, the large takes in the Faroes that have occurred over many centuries may well have caused a significant reduction in abundance that has gone undetected in this highly social and wide-ranging species.

The other species regularly slaughtered slaughtered in the Faroe Islands is the Atlantic White Sided dolphin. The IUCN lists the population as unknown.

Sea Shepherd has opposed the Grindadráp since 1983. We have sent numerous ships and sponsored numerous ground campaigns for decades and we will continue to do so. It took three decades for us to realize the banning of seal products from Canada in Europe. It took fifteen years to drive the Japanese whale poachers from the Southern Ocean. These campaigns require both patience and determination and Sea Shepherd has demonstrated to ability to be extremely patient and unwaveringly determined in our opposition to the abuse and destruction of marine species.

Why do we oppose the Grindadráp? We do so in order to defend and protect the species. We do so because it is an excessively cruel and grossly inhumane slaughter. We do so because we are ecologically aware and compassionate towards these incredibly unique and wondrous sentient beings.

Murder Most Foul in the Faroe Islands

Guided by a sperm whale, Operation SISO 2018 finishes with 130 km of illegal FADs (Fishing aggregating devices) removed from the sea. Commentary by Director of Sea Shepherd Italia, Andrea Morello.

In 2017, crossing the Aeolian Islands archipelago, a young sperm whale remained entangled in an illegal “squadrara” fishing net. The Coast Guard spent many hours struggling to free him but couldn’t save his life. SISO was found dead along the coast of Milazzo Cape, with the net still coiled around the tail fin and with the stomach full of plastic, by the marine biologist Carmelo Isgrò who still today is conserving the skeleton to show it as a warning for all of us and the future generations on the damages we are causing to the environment. Carmelo decided to call the sperm whale with the name SISO in honor of the dear friend who helped him retrieve the sperm whale, and who died in a car accident in those same days.

The death of SISO due to an illegal drift net, is a clear signal of the presence of illegal fishing gear in the Aeolian archipelago. Moreover, the 2018 data from the Ministry of Agricultural, Food and Forestry Policies, updated as of 15th September 2018, confirm that 180.815,79 kg of illegal catch have been confiscated with a total of €7.649.914,8 sanctions applied.

It becomes clearly impossible for Sea Shepherd not to intervene, with the support of the Aeolian Islands Preservation Fund and Smile Wave.

The strategy of the operation provided for two Sea Shepherd vessels to be used: the M/V Sam Simon and a ship without logo on an undercover mission. The latter reached the area earlier beginning the monitoring of the eastern area of the archipelago, while the M/V Sam Simon was arriving from North and going towards South-West.

We left aboard the M/V Sam Simon from the Molo Italia in La Spezia on October 2nd with a purpose: to locate the illegal fishing gear and driftnets in the Aeolian Islands. The vessel was ready after 4 months on dry berthing, yet on day two it has been through the ringer: an increasing Sea State 5 that made it test a violent storm coming from North-East.

It was dawn when we reached the area north of the wonderful Alicudi and we have been welcomed by a pod of dolphins coming to cheer us and bringing a calmness to the sea that allowed us to promptly locate the first plastic jerrycans tied and anchored to a 3000mt deep seabed: the illegal FADs (Fishing Aggregating Devices).

In agreement and coordination with the Coast Guard, direct action sprang immediately: at 8.45am we hoisted aboard the first illegal FADs. From that moment on we started to locate and map on the GPS dozens of FADs which represent a real danger, even for turtles that most of the time remain entangled without the chance to break free, heading to certain death.

After two days of unrelenting efforts, the sea reinforced taking us inside the archipelago in the marine area in the South of Filicudi, a new area to patrol. At 9am something unexpected happened: in our binoculars, ready to spot potentially illegal fishing gear, a strong and recognizable puff appeared and then another! A wonderful sperm whale came to visit us, as if he wanted to join us in our search for SISO and the nets that killed him. It was him that brought us to the immediate sighting of dozens of other illegal FADs.

These illegal FADs threaten both the life in the Mediterranean and the local legal fishing. The local management plan of the Aeolian Islands archipelago regulates the use of the “cannizzi”: “In the area to be managed, specific zones will be identified in which the “cannizzi” can be anchored, and the number (maximum of 20), position and implementation (measure 1.4 of the European Fisheries Fund 2007-2013) will be planned. They will be assigned by draw to the fishermen and signed as to make them recognizable. Furthermore, to tackle the recent but progressive anticipation of the capture of the common dolphinfish, the posing of the “cannizzi” is established starting from September 15th and the beginning of the catching activities on September 30th.” The non-detectability and the complete lack of traceability of the FADs make them part of the illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing (IUU).

The results of 12 days of unrelenting direct action are 130km of polypropylene line and 1500 mt of fishing line of big thickness without hooks removed from the sea, and a total of 68 illegal FADs confiscated and several plastic bottles, some of them still containing polluting material inside.

The strategy of the Operation revealed to be successful when two fishing vessels, at the sight of the M/V Sam Simon, tried to distance themselves in order to fish illegally using the FADs. Our undercover sailing boat intercepted their route and, using the most powerful existing weapon, the camera, filmed them. Thanks to the documentation of the identifying details of the vessels and of the position, the Coast Guard and the Financial Guard have been able to intervene with investigations still going on.

With the arrival of the sailing boat in Anzio harbor, Operation SISO 2018 ended with the typical Sea Shepherd success and effectiveness, and it confirms the huge estimated presence of illegal FADs: over 5000 in the South Tyrrhenian Sea for an estimated total of 10.000km of illegal fishing gear that every year are put into water.

Thanks to the support of the Aeolian Preservation Fund and Smile Wave, the interaction with local communities has been perfect and during the stops at Lipari and Salina a lot of children and students came onboard. We also received onboard the representatives of the Aeolian artisanal fishermen that will cooperate with Sea Shepherd in order to increase the effectiveness of the next campaigns, and to defend with us this heavenly archipelago, with the purpose of creating a protected marine area which may lead to total protection, opening also the path towards the sustainable Blue economy in an ecological coexistence among species.

In memory of SISO, reinforced by the passion of our volunteers and the support of all the people who will help us, we will come back to the South Tyrrhenian against the illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing (IUU) and against the use of plastic. Lining up with the “bow toward the sea” with the biggest private fleet in defense of the life of those we call “our clients”, the inhabitants of the Oceans, our thirteen ships are positioned in almost all the seas of our planet.

The most important weapon that makes the difference is the passion of the individuals, the passion that encourages to not turn the back in front of illegality and cruelty but to fight them with direct action, without leaving neither plastic nor cruelty behind, but the sense of sharing and respect for all lives.

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Andrea Morello

Sea Shepherd Italy Director and Operation Siso Campaign Leader

Sea Shepherd Italy Director and Operation Siso Campaign Leader on board the M/V Sam Simon. Photo by Emanuela Giurano/Sea Shepherd.Sea Shepherd Italy Director and Operation Siso Campaign Leader on board the M/V Sam Simon. Photo by Emanuela Giurano/Sea Shepherd

Commentary by Sea Shepherd Captain Alistair Allan of the M/Y Sam Simon

Why a Calm Day on Patrol is a Good Day on Patrol

Liberia, West Africa – It’s another cloudless day and the blue water shimmers under the relentless assault from the sun. There’s hardly a breath of wind to interrupt the endless turquoise plateau as I stare out my porthole. The internal phone rings in my cabin. An excited voice is on the other end: ‘’ORCAS! Orcas outside!’’ I hastily climb the stairs to the bridge and look  out the starboard side.

As I’m scanning to find them, a huge dorsal fin slices out of the water right near the ship. It’s the largest of the pod, the matriarch.  I realize that they’re all around the ship, a family of twelve or so. The crew delights as they swim around the ship, with younger members of the pod splashing and jumping.

The Sam Simon has been on patrol in Liberia for a month now, and on this particular encounter we’re positioned on the far eastern border of Liberia shared with Cote D´Ivoire. The Cavalla River empties out to sea here and the area is a hub of biodiversity. Just prior to the commencement of Operation Sola Stella in 2016, local artisanal fishermen in this area were complaining about daily incursions by foreign industrial trawlers in this exact area. They were coming across the border every single night, running over their nets, running over their canoes, and stealing the fish that they depend on for their livelihood. Fast forward to today, almost three years later, the Liberian Coast Guard, assisted by Sea Shepherd’s M/Y Sam Simon and M/Y Bob Barker, have completely halted these incursions.

It didn’t take three years to stop illegal ships crossing into Liberia’s waters. In fact, the incursions stopped almost immediately on the first ever patrol with the Bob Barker. But we remain vigilant and ever-present. Patrols at the moment are quiet. Our ever-spinning radars don’t show a vessel for miles, bar a few local canoes. When I stand out on the bridge wing at night, the fluorescent lights of industrial fishing vessels are now replaced by the stars. With one trawler able to catch up to five-to-ten tons of fish in a day, the absence of one vessel would be considered a victory, let alone the empty dark ocean I see now. Gone are the nights when unscrupulous operators used to plunder with reckless abandon.

With four illegal vessels having been arrested in this area alone and a total of thirteen arrests throughout Liberia’s waters, the foreign industrial trawlers now know if they dare cross into Liberia, the Liberian Coast Guard will be waiting. The lack of illegal activity is our proof of success, and -- more importantly -- that activity has been replaced by something else entirely: wildlife.

The sea here is teeming. We see massive pods of dolphins, sometimes numbering as many as 500; we see schools of tuna, we see whales, and on special days like today we see orcas. What was once an area full of illegal trawl nets and fishing boats has once again become a haven for life. Local communities report fish numbers returning to the spawning grounds close to shore. Life, both in the sea and for those who depend on it, is returning to normal.

Captain Alistair Allan. Photo: Sea ShepherdCaptain Alistair Allan. Photo: Sea Shepherd

When I started with Sea Shepherd, I joined in the days of our Antarctic whale defense campaigns. I was used to the high-octane engagements and constant clashes. I was proud of our mission; I wanted to save the whales from the harpoons. Eight years later, as I stand on the bridge deck of the Sam Simon and watch these orcas swim past, I feel the same sense of pride. With up too 300,000 whales and dolphins caught annually as bycatch due to industrial fishing, I feel that these campaigns to stop illegal fishing are the natural progression of what I started doing all those years ago. Only this time it’s not just whales that are protected: countless species of fish, sharks, rays and turtles also benefit from an ocean free of illegal fishing vessels.

So despite the lack of action, my crew and I take solace every day -- as we watch the pods of dolphins play, or the schools of tuna swim by -- that life in Liberia is returning, life in Liberia is protected and life in Liberia has security, both for animals and humans who both rely on a healthy ocean.

Commentary by Perkunas campaign leader, Reinhard Grabler

Pressures on Baltic Harbor Porpoises

With only 500 animals left, the Baltic harbor porpoises have been declared critically endangered. Being killed as bycatch in fishing nets is the major threat for the animals, yet fishing is still permitted, even in Marine Protected Areas. In Sea Shepherd’s Perkunas campaign, the crew of the M/V Emanuel Bronner documented and monitored deadly gillnets in protected areas of the Baltic Sea. But accidental death in fishing nets is not the only human-caused threat for these animals. Eutrophication, underwater noise, marine debris, overfishing, and bottom trawling are also damaging the Baltic Sea ecosystem, affecting both harbor porpoises and the local populations that depend on it.

 Giant liquid manure lagoons from a German pig farm around 3km away from the Baltic coast. Giant liquid manure lagoons from a German pig farm around 3km away from the Baltic coast.

Surrounded by nine northern European countries, the Baltic Sea is a brackish inland sea, vulnerable to a process called eutrophication. Excessive input of nutrients, primarily caused by industrial agriculture runoff, leads to a growth of algae that causes reduced light conditions in the water, as well as oxygen depletion. As a result, 97% of the Baltic Sea is considered eutrophied, causing some of the largest low-oxygen areas on Earth, so-called “Dead Zones”, where no life is possible. This ultimately affects not only the Baltic harbor porpoises, but the fishing industry as well.

Underwater Noise
Underwater noise is a particularly dangerous threat for cetaceans. Harbor porpoises have excellent underwater hearing abilities and depend on sound for their orientation, communication and foraging. The deadly effects of underwater noise pollution on marine wildlife include mass strandings and disrupted feeding. Sources of continuous noise are offshore wind turbines, shipping, boating, bridges, and tunnels. The planned Fehmarnbelt Tunnel seems absurd: the underwater tunnel planned to connect Denmark and the German island of Fehmarn will go directly through the Fehmarnbelt Marine Protected Area, an important migration area for harbor porpoises. The beneficiaries of this project are unclear, but the losers are certain: the wildlife of the Baltic Sea that will suffer from the destroyed seabed, the continuous noise, and the vibrations. Additionally, sudden bursts of noise, such as military testing, are of particular danger for the animals. If there was the political will, this additional noise could be reduced or even prevented by tactics such as air bubble curtains, yet they are barely used. The best option would be to prevent noise altogether, such as the demolition of the retired Karlsruhe frigate in the Schönhagen military area off the German Baltic coast planned for this fall. A shockwave from such an underwater detonation can lead to loss of hearing, serious injuries or even the death of porpoises up to seven kilometers away. Moreover, there is no need to dump more ammunition to the Baltic Sea, while ammunition from World War II is still causing water pollution due to corroded containers that release mercury into the marine environment.

Marine Debris
Marine litter in different sizes and materials causes damage to the ecosystem. Some of it can be easily seen, some of it is hiding on the seafloor, slowly degrading, increasing its impact by entering the aquatic food chain. Larger pieces of marine debris deteriorate the quality of the habitat and can cause injury or death of many species when they get entangled or ingest the debris. Around 70% of the litter documented in the Baltic Sea comes from plastics used by humans. Plastic materials can last for decades on the sea floor, and can travel long distance on the water currents or in the bodies of migratory species. Abandoned, lost or discarded fishing gear, so-called ghost nets, are worthy of special concern as they are not only made of plastic, but they continue catching non-targeted or even protected species for hundreds of years.

 The injuries around this harbor porpoise’s mouth may have been caused by a gillnet during the animal's fight for survival.

Overfishing and Bottom Trawling
Excessive fishing is a major problem in the Baltic Sea. More and more fish stocks are considered overfished, which means targeted species can’t naturally reproduce fast enough to replace the numbers caught. What seems like a profitable practice actually reduces fisheries profits and threatens the existence of other marine species that depend on fish for food. To avoid the collapse of fish stocks, quotas for catch are decided every year by the European Union. Unfortunately these quotas do not always take into account the advice of scientists, leading to numbers that are not sustainable. Also, history has shown that fishermen do not change their practices if there are not sufficient controls, leading to an unknown number of illegally caught fish. A decline of fish stocks ultimately means a decline in food sources for harbor porpoises. In addition to all this, the common practice of bottom trawling is destroying the sea floor, which is important for the spawning of many species.

A Call for Action
Disturbances of the marine ecosystem are not only a threat for wildlife, they are also a threat for humans. Not only do millions of people rely on the Baltic Sea as a food source, but a healthy ecosystem is the basis for life in this region. It’s not one person or activity that has serious impact on the environment, but the multiplication of these activities several million times. There are issues that can only be addressed in small steps, and there are issues that can be tackled right now. The two top priorities for the protection of the harbor porpoises in the Baltic Sea are to stop the risk of being killed as bycatch and to reduce noise pollution. Both can be done easily, if there is the political will. Sea Shepherd therefore demands a ban of gillnets and other destructive fishing gear in protected areas and calls for the stop of the Fehmarnbelt Tunnel project and the demolition of the retired Karlsruhe frigate.


Sea Shepherd Commentary & Editorial articles from 2012 and earlier.

For articles from 2013 and newer, visit our Sea Shepherd Commentary & Editorials page.