Blue rage

With industrial fishing creating problems on a global scale, direct action conservationists from the Sea Shepherd group are turning their attention to the Mediterranean. Wietse van der Werf reports

June 16, 2010
6 min read

As Red Pepper goes to press, the Sea Shepherd vessel Steve Irwin is arriving in the Mediterranean and is being prepared for battle. For most people, the daring marine direct action of Sea Shepherd is associated with attempts to stop Japanese whaling in the Southern Ocean. But now the activists are turning their attention away from the ice-cold Antarctic to the Mediterranean Sea. Illegal fishing here, in the most regulated yet most overexploited sea in the world, is driving the populations of bluefin tuna to extinction.

Captain Paul Watson and his crew of eco-vigilantes have waged something akin to a war against the Japanese whalers who have killed whales inside the Southern Ocean Whale Sanctuary. The sanctuary, established by the International Whaling Commission in 1996, is supposed to protect whales. A global moratorium on commercial whaling has also banned the practice since 1986. However, governments have been unwilling to uphold international treaties and agreements to protect marine wildlife and habitats. With Australia and Japan in the process of negotiating a free trade agreement, it is no surprise that the Australian Labour government does little to end the illegal slaughter of whales by the Japanese whaling fleet, despite making big promises to do so during past elections.

Fishing for problems

This reluctance to uphold international conservation measures is found the world over, with little protection offered to threatened flora and fauna species. The world’s oceans are in crisis with almost all the major fish stocks on the brink of collapse. The UN recently reported that if things carry on as at present, all of the world’s main fisheries will have collapsed by 2048.

Industrial fishing has experienced a huge growth due to technological developments since the 1960s. New types of fishing gear have been introduced, ships have become faster and are able to stay out at sea for longer. Long-range sonar, which was previously only available to the military, has become available for civilian use and gives fishermen the ability to trace fish virtually anywhere. The scale of fishing has reached unprecedented proportions, something the fish populations simply cannot take.

Trawling, driftnetting, longlining and purse seining are common fishing methods used by the thousands of vessels that set out onto the Mediterranean Sea every day. Driftnets and longlines are a huge threat to the larger marine animals, which can easily get entangled in them, with mostly fatal consequences.

Nearly half the species of sharks, rays and skates in the Mediterranean are listed as endangered, making it the most dangerous place on earth for these animals. Several species of large predatory sharks, such as the hammerhead and thresher shark, have been massacred, with more than 97 per cent of their Mediterranean populations killed off in the past 200 years. All turtle species in the Mediterranean are endangered, as well as most types of whales and dolphins. More than four fifths of the bluefin tuna population has been killed off within the past 50 years.

The European Union has been handing out subsidies to the fishing industry for over 40 years. Spain, France, Italy and Greece are the biggest beneficiaries and account for the most landings of fish. Of the 88,500 vessels that made up the EU fishing fleet in 2007, the great majority operated from these countries. A large part of the funding was for the construction of new vessels, even though the EU fleet must shrink dramatically if it is to get to any sustainable size. This overcapacity of fishing fleets is a worldwide problem, with the global fishing fleet currently operating at two and a half times the capacity that it can fish sustainably.

The various EU fisheries policies have done little to curb the problems of overfishing, fleet overcapacity, heavy subsidies and the general low economic resilience of the industry. Calls for conservation measures have been largely ignored and recently even the European Commission acknowledged that the current regulations fail to protect marine wildlife and habitats adequately. With 80 per cent of all species in EU waters overfished and subsidised EU trawlers also emptying the waters in other parts of the world, the continued handouts are directly driving the emptying of the oceans.

Farmed to extinction

Bluefin tuna migrates to the Mediterranean each spring. Traditional fishing for the bluefin has taken place throughout recorded history, but industrial fishing for this species has been expanding rapidly in recent years. Bluefin, considered a delicacy in Japan and other Asian countries, fetches high prices, with one 232-kilogram fish being sold for 16.28 million yen (US$175,000) in Japan in January.

Most of the bluefin tuna ends up in tuna farms. These ‘ranges’ do not breed and rear fish in captivity, instead relying on wild tuna, caught from already declining stocks. Purse seining fleets catch the fish and transfer them to pens where they are fattened until they meet market requirements. More than 70 such farms have opened in the Mediterranean in less than 15 years, with a total holding capacity of over 60,000 tons, twice the total allowed catch quota. Their feed, which consists of smaller fish, is also fished from local stocks. Serious concerns have already been expressed about the Mediterranean populations of anchovy, which are overexploited in many areas and often used to feed the farmed tuna.

There is little monitoring of what goes on in the farms. The pens often hold more fish than allowed and the many farms operate at levels of overproduction, which has effects on the local environment as well as the wellbeing of the animals. Many illegal fishing vessels, such as those from Turkey, land their catches in farms. Once penned, there is no way of tracing where fish have originated from.

Governments and some mainstream conservation groups argue that aquaculture (where fish are bred and reared in captivity) is the way forward, with the industry just needing to ‘clean up’. But can such a badly regulated part of an already heavily corrupted and largely illegal industry clean up? Governments have failed by letting this lucrative industry spiral out of control.

Sea Shepherd, which has worked at the frontline of ocean conservation for 33 years, is now launching ‘Operation Blue Rage’ to put a halt to the illegal fishing plague that has infested the Mediterranean. The operation will last up to three months, starting in late May. The conservation group operates as a citizen-run enforcement organisation, using direct action tactics to intervene against illegal practices at sea. With so little progress to protect bluefin in recent years, Sea Shepherd’s approach may well turn out to be the only one able to stop the pirates from plundering the Mediterranean Sea and all unique life in it.

Wietse van der Werf works as ship’s carpenter and engineer on the Sea Shepherd vessel Steve Irwin. For more about the campaign see

www.seashepherd.org


✹ Try our new pay-as-you-feel subscription — you choose how much to pay.

Utopia: Work less play more
A shorter working week would benefit everyone, writes Madeleine Ellis-Petersen

Short story: Syrenka
A short story by Kirsten Irving

Utopia: Industrial Workers Taking the Wheel
Hilary Wainwright reflects on an attempt by British workers to produce a democratically determined alternative plan for their industry – and its lessons for today

Mum’s Colombian mine protest comes to London
Anne Harris reports on one woman’s fight against a multinational coal giant

Bike courier Maggie Dewhurst takes on the gig economy… and wins
We spoke to Mags about why she’s ‘biting the hand that feeds her’

Utopia: Daring to dream
Imagining a better world is the first step towards creating one. Ruth Potts introduces our special utopian issue

Utopia: Room for all
Nadhira Halim and Andy Edwards report on the range of creative responses to the housing crisis that are providing secure, affordable housing across the UK

A better Brexit
The left should not tail-end the establishment Bremoaners, argues Michael Calderbank

News from movements around the world
Compiled by James O’Nions

Podemos: In the Name of the People
'The emergence as a potential party of government is testament both to the richness of Spanish radical culture and the inventiveness of activists such as Errejón' - Jacob Mukherjee reviews Errejón and Mouffe's latest release

Survival Shake! – creative ways to resist the system
Social justice campaigner Sakina Sheikh describes a project to embolden young people through the arts

‘We don’t want to be an afterthought’: inside Momentum Kids
If Momentum is going to meet the challenge of being fully inclusive, a space must be provided for parents, mothers, carers, grandparents and children, write Jessie Hoskin and Natasha Josette

The Kurdish revolution – a report from Rojava
Peter Loo is supporting revolutionary social change in Northern Syria.

How to make your own media
Lorna Stephenson and Adam Cantwell-Corn on running a local media co-op

Book Review: The EU: an Obituary
Tim Holmes takes a look at John Gillingham's polemical history of the EU

Book Review: The End of Jewish Modernity
Author Daniel Lazar reviews Enzo Traverso's The End of Jewish Modernity

Lesbians and Gays Support the Migrants
Ida-Sofie Picard introduces Lesbians and Gays Support the Migrants – as told to Jenny Nelson

Book review: Angry White People: Coming Face to Face With the British Far-Right
Hilary Aked gets close up with the British far right in Hsiao-Hung Pai's latest release

University should not be a debt factory
Sheldon Ridley spoke to students taking part in their first national demonstration.

Book Review: The Day the Music Died – a Memoir
Sheila Rowbotham reviews the memoirs of BBC director and producer, Tony Garnett.

Power Games: A Political History
Malcolm Maclean reviews Jules Boykoff's Power Games: A Political History

Book Review: Sex, Needs and Queer Culture: from liberation to the post-gay
Aiming to re-evaluate the radicalism and efficacy of queer counterculture and rebellion - April Park takes us through David Alderson's new work.

A book review every day until Christmas at Red Pepper
Red Pepper will be publishing a new book review each day until Christmas

Book Review: Corbyn: The Strange Rebirth of Radical Politics
'In spite of the odds Corbyn is still standing' - Alex Doherty reviews Seymour's analysis of the rise of Corbyn

From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation
'A small manifesto for black liberation through socialist revolution' - Graham Campbell reviews Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor's 'From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation'

The Fashion Revolution: Turn to the left
Bryony Moore profiles Stitched Up, a non-profit group reimagining the future of fashion

The abolition of Art History A-Level will exacerbate social inequality
This is a massive blow to the rights of ordinary kids to have the same opportunities as their more privileged peers. Danielle Child reports.

Mass civil disobedience in Sudan
A three-day general strike has brought Sudan to a stand still as people mobilise against the government and inequality. Jenny Nelson writes.

Mustang film review: Three fingers to Erdogan
Laura Nicholson reviews Mustang, Deniz Gamze Erguven’s unashamedly feminist film critique of Turkey’s creeping conservatism

What if the workers were in control?
Hilary Wainwright reflects on an attempt by British workers to produce a democratically determined alternative plan for their industry


1