Conservation Warriors: Life on Board a Sea Shepherd Vessel

On 9 January this year, Sea Shepherd vessel M/V Farley Mowat came under attack by fishermen from 35 skiffs that were fishing illegally inside the Vaquita Refuge in the Upper Gulf of California, a marine protected area. The Sea Shepherd Conservation Society is an international non-profit marine wildlife conservation organization that was founded in 1977. Consisting of 12 ships, their fleet takes direct action to defend, conserve and protect our oceans. Often they are met with hostility, aggression, and intimidation, yet they remain unwavering in their actions – on land, at sea, and in the world’s most influential courtrooms. The danger is just a risk of the cause.

The M/V Brigitte Bardot is Sea Shepherd’s interceptor vessel and is currently on Operation Mamacocha, a campaign that addresses Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated (IUU) fishing. We recently met up with their first mate Rebecca Benjamin-Carey to get answers to all the questions we’ve always wanted to ask.

  • Describe volunteering for Sea Shepherd in three words.
    Rewarding, eye-opening and tough.
  • Tell us more about Operation Mamacocha?
    The Eastern Tropical Pacific Biodiversity Corridor covers roughly two million square kilometres (770 000 square miles) of ocean. This is a migration path for lots of pelagic species and is also home to 88 species of sharks, giant oceanic manta rays, sea turtles, dolphins, blue whales and other marine life due to its nutrient-rich waters. We patrol this area in search of illegal fishing methods and discarded fishing gear
  • Is it true that your boat, the Brigitte Bardot, can circumnavigate the world in less than 80 days?
    As our interceptor vessel, we use the Brigitte Bardot to track down poaching vessels and move fast when we need to. She was originally built for the purpose of sailing around the world and she broke that record in 74 days, 20 hours, and 58 minutes

OM-SA-The_Bardot_departs_Cocos_Islands_after_ten_days_of_research_diving_with_sharks

  • What else can you tell us about the boat?
    Most people think she’s a trimaran, but she’s actually a stabilized monohull with balancing pontoons on the sides. This ensures we can handle high waves when going fast. She’s also been to Antarctica on the anti-whaling Operation No Compromise in 2010 to protect the Southern Ocean Whale Sanctuary.
  • Describe an average day on board the Brigitte Bardot?
    On a campaign we either wake up first thing in the morning, in the middle of the day, or really late at night, depending on when your shift is. We patrol 24/7 by using the radar to identify and investigate fishing vessels around. Oh and there are three meals a day.
  • What kind of dishes does the chef usually cook?
    All the Sea Shepherd ships are vegan, so she gets really creative. We’ve realised you can have a vegan version of anything you want.

  • What has been your biggest triumph so far?
    Sea Shepherd has fought hard against IUU fishing. During Operation Mamacocha one of the ships in our fleet, the M/V John Paul DeJoria, tracked down the world’s largest illegal fishing factory off the coast of Peru. They were fishing twice the entire world’s quota for mackerel and owed Peru millions of dollars in fines for illegal fishing. We found them, took drone footage of their location and was able to share that with the Peruvian government. They were subsequently arrested, the boat seized and deflagged
  • What has been the most shocking thing you’ve encountered at sea?
    Operation Milagro is focused on conservation efforts to protect the vaquita porpoise, a species on the brink of extinction. We cut and destroy nets that have been illegally placed in refuge zones, so we deal with lots of hostility from poachers because we’re taking away thousands of dollars from them. The worst thing I’ve seen is the number of animals caught in those nets – we’ve found leatherback turtles, stingrays, sharks, dolphins, sea lions and other animals strangled in the nets.
  • Where do the confiscated nets go?
    Once we’ve removed the nets, we send it to another organisation that recycles them into material for things like shoes and shirts.

MV-Brigitte-Bardot-sails-past-Chinese-squid-boat-Lulan-Yuan-Yu

  • Would you say what you do is dangerous? How do you mitigate the risks?
    Yes, definitely. The people we’re facing are operating illegally and it’s all unregulated and unreported. We’re all volunteers and we all know what we signed up for, but we mitigate the risks with passion.
  • What are your thoughts on Japan’s recent announcement to restart commercial whaling?
    We see Japan leaving the International Whaling Commission (IWC) as a win because that gets them out of the Southern Pacific Whale Sanctuary. Japanese vessels used to disguise themselves as research ships and still conduct whaling in this protected area. Now that they’re out in the open, there will be more eyes on them and make it easier to control where they do it and make sure they don’t do it in the sanctuary. The issue is not gone but we’re definitely getting closer to stopping whaling on a global scale.

Ocean conservation efforts have become even stronger as more people realize the urgency of it. Eco-warriors like Sea Shepherd not only take direct action, they also spread awareness on a global scale. There are small steps to conservation you can take at home, such as researching what you’re eating and spending your money on. You can also get involved with Sea Shepherd on sea, shore, land, or as a donor simply by applying online.

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Maggie Roodt

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