Sailing the ocean to save marine life

Our oceans are facing a bleak future. Captain Siddharth Chakravarty speaks about his work in controlling poaching, pollution and other criminal activities at sea
Captain Siddharth Chakravarty with the illegal driftnets confiscated by Sea Shepherd during Operation Driftnet (Photo source: Sea Shepherd) Captain Siddharth Chakravarty with the illegal driftnets confiscated by Sea Shepherd during Operation Driftnet (Photo source: Sea Shepherd)

He is called Mobi Dick's Avenger. The 33-year-old captain of M/V Steve Irwin, the flagship of Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, Siddharth Chakravarty has been sailing the oceans for the last one-and-a-half decades; crusading much of that time for the marine life. Sea Shepherd leads the world in direct-action ocean conservation, running campaigns against destructive, and often illegal, fishing practices.

Captain Chakravarty's last campaign was against illegal driftnet fishing in the Indian Ocean. Fishing with driftnets was banned by the UN in 1992 because the fine monofilament nets of the driftnets, often several kilometers long, indiscriminately kill marine life where they are set. This campaign was concluded successfully in April this year, when M/V Steve Irwin chased the Fu Yuan Fu fleet of ships back to China, and submitted the evidence of their illegal work to the Chinese authorities. Before that, in the year 2015-16, Captain Chakravarty led Operation Icefish against the Illegal, Unreported, and Unregulated (IUU) fishing of toothfish in the Antartic ocean. The campaign ended in March 2016 when Indonesian authorities sunk Viking, the last toothfish-poaching vessel.

Here, Captain Chakravarty speaks to India Water Portal about our oceans, the need to conserve the marine life, and how even a layperson can help achieve it.

You have spoken earlier of marine conservation as being “something so removed from the reality of most people”. Has that changed? What could be the reasons?

The MV Steve Irwin alongside one of the illegal driftnets discovered on Operation Driftnet (Photo: Sea Shepherd)There is a lot of marine conservation work that is being undertaken across the world. Starting with the new UN conventions being ratified and the involvement of INTERPOL to combat organised crime to seafood traceability programmes, there is a general push towards building enforceable oceans.

But marine conservation is still removed from the reality of most people. For people who depend on the oceans for their daily sustenance or as their primary food source, the negative impacts are felt firsthand; but the larger population, with secondary or tertiary connection to the oceans, do not realise the oceans are in need of conservation.

The issues of biodiversity loss, ocean pollution, noise pollution, seabed mining, etc are affecting the ocean health. They are, however, still absent from the public domain because they don’t affect our daily life, at least not yet. But as the state and non-state actors begin to engage with issues, information is becoming more readily accessible and is being disseminated to the people.

Moving ahead, I see a combination of policy work at all levels, along with the access to information, as being catalysts in changing the current understanding of ocean issues.

Sea Shepherd began highlighting the issue of driftnets in the late 1980s and in the early 1990s, the UN banned it. How much of a role did Sea Shepherd's activities play in the policy change?

Sea Shepherd began the campaign against driftnets nearly 30 years ago, in 1987. We succeeded in focusing international media attention on a practice that was virtually unknown to the world. To do that, we had to engage in aggressive campaigns to disable the fishing equipment by destroying power blocks and confiscating and destroying hundreds of miles of driftnet. We had no other alternative but to dramatise the situation through aggressive campaigns. Sea Shepherd’s role has been to take issues which are removed from the public domain and use direct action to raise their profile.

While there is no direct way of knowing if Sea Shepherd influenced a policy of the UN, what is certain is that such policy changes were more readily ratified and accepted when they’ve been highlighted through our campaigns.

The mission statement of Sea Shepherd is two-fold. One is to use direct action to fill enforcement vacuums on the world’s oceans. And the other is to work with state actors to enforce laws within the loopholes of international law. The main work is to assist the enforcement of policies, such as the UN Driftnet Moratorium on Operation Driftnet or the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR) rules on Operation Icefish 1 &2.

You made a strong case for giving up eating fish in your TEDx talk. For those of us who'd like to dip a toe in the issue, is there a 'dirty dozen' of fish species that Indian consumers should avoid?

What I like to tell people who ask me about giving up a particular species of fish is to delve a bit deeper and actually look at seafood consumption from an ethical standpoint. When a vessel drops hundreds of kilometers of line with hooks into the ocean, there is no way to guarantee what fish is going to be hooked on the line. By creating a demand for a particular kind of fish, we are promoting bad practices such as the dumping of the undesirable fish.

Our understanding of the relationship between different species in the marine ecosystem is far too limited to be coming up with a list that allows for consumers to choose wisely. Estimates suggest that 2.6 billion people rely on seafood as their primary food source.

So if you’re someone who isn’t on the coast, doesn’t live in a coastal country and is empowered with other dietary choices, then choose alternatives to seafood. Give it up completely.

What are the most endangered species in the Indian Ocean and the primary threats they face?

A Southern Bluefish Tuna lies tangled in a driftnet.  25 of these critically endangered fish were found dead in one of the illegal driftnets of the Fu Yuan Yu fleet. (Photo: Sea Shepherd)Most fish stocks are not endangered but the latest report from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN (UNFAO) suggests that 70 percent of worldwide stocks are “exploited or over-exploited”. On the other hand, over 6,000 tons of endangered Southern Bluefin Tuna is caught every year, and the catch is then labelled 'sustainable' by the fishing industry. Because fishing is largely unselective, looking at marine conservation through the lens of the endangered scale seems like the wrong way to be approaching the issue. And yet again, if there’s a market for a critically endangered species, such as the Southern Bluefin Tuna, then even that will be fished.

I recently met Dr Dipani Sutaria who has been trying to develop baselines to study fish landings and assess the current levels of fish stocks along India’s coast. I would think her findings would be an important way to look at fish species.

As for the threats, fishing, discarded gear entanglement, plastic entanglement and ingestion, pollutants from sewage and industrial run-offs, ship traffic, oil drilling and spills, noise pollution are all factors that affect marine life.

 

What changes in policy will help protect India's coastal and pelagic zone biodiversity?

The mantra to successfully manage biodiversity is to have three arms--science, enforcement and industry--that can function independently of each other. Right now, a lot of this science is driven by industry funding around the world. This must change.

Currently, the Navy and the Coast Guard have been tasked with inspecting fishing vessels at sea but lack the protocols and the procedures to execute the task effectively. This, too, must change.

And lastly, and most importantly, those who benefit economically from the fishing activities must not have a say in the science or the enforcement. The unbiased science must set the quotas, the industry must fish only these quotas and the government must enforce these quotas.

What are the steps that an individual can take to minimise his/her impact on our oceans?

Here are two things to do to immediately help the oceans--reduce the demand for seafood and stop the use of single-use plastics.

 A diet without seafood will give the time to understand the oceans better, from a science and a governance point of view. Fishing is an industry that is immensely transnational and reduction in demand will allow for organised crimes to be weeded out and an effective enforcement regime to be put into place. Giving up seafood can actually help to overcome the food security issue of our planet by feeding those who need it the most. Fishing and discarded fishing gear take life in massive quantities; your demand creates this mass extraction of biomass.

The other killer of marine life today is plastic. Plastic bags, bottles and caps, microbeads in toothpastes, gels, soaps etc. all run down the gutters and drain into the oceans. Toxins accumulate to the strength of 10,000 times in plastic granules and don’t breakdown for centuries. As marine life consumes this plastic, in the form of microbeads, they ultimately move up the food chain, along with the toxins, and cause health issues through lead and mercury poisoning. Plastic ingestion causes internal choking and results in the death of marine life in large numbers, too.

At the very end, I would like to cite the example Dr Boris Worm of the University of Dalhousie give at his talks. He says, “Take one breath. Then take another breath. This second breath comes from the oceans.” If we begin to look at the oceans as an ecosystem that sustains the life on this planet, then we will be able to make small changes to help preserve them.

 

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