Interview with The Black Fish

Interview by Siobhan Carleton-Green with Wietse van der Werf, Co-Founder of The Black Fish

© Marco Carè/Marine Photobank

What is The Black Fish about?

The Black Fish is a combination of two things: it campaigns on marine conservation issues and it also has a grass roots approach. To be a community, something people can easily get involved in; whilst also being very structured in terms of our funding and marketing. Our approach is a little bit different: to combine being professional but at the same time making conservation very accessible, making it something that ordinary people can get involved in. On the campaigning side we feel that although there is a lot of legislation being passed there is actually very little enforcement and areas where the enforcement is lacking altogether.

What are The Black Fish plans for the future?

There are two focal points for the coming years: Bluefin Tuna and Driftnets. We will be focusing on those specific campaigns and in terms of our approach by training people. We are going to start running a number of courses next summer, we will start training people in diving, marine engineering and boat driving. We will be looking at a new approach and how we can fill in the gaps where other organisations have left some space but also in the issues where there is room to expand. So I think whatever we do in the future it will be to strengthen the sort of work that other NGOs do on marine conservation.

Are you approaching governments regarding enforcing the laws that are already in place or do you prefer a more direct action?

We prefer direct action. There are quite a few organisations that do the lobbying side of things, they talk to governments and they push for legislation and better enforcement but it has not been as effective as it should be. We feel for example with the driftnets – the moment we have a vessel out there collecting driftnets from the ocean, as soon as we get into any confrontation with illegal driftnets vessel the coast guard or the Navy will come out and then it’s going to be interesting because they are actually supposed to do the work we’re doing there. So, I think what we’re trying to do is to really provoke a reaction from the authorities by starting the work for them. It’s not the answer but right now I think that’s where the pressure and the attention needs to be pointed.

Tell us more about the training that you’re planning on doing next year?

A lot of people getting involved in The Black Fish are not traditional activists, they are ordinary people. The idea with The Black Fish is that it’s open to anyone. A big part of that is the feeling of what can I do, as an ordinary person? What we’re trying to bring about is a change in attitude. If we’re able to train people, to get people qualifications that means they can safely get involved in campaigning by being divers and doing investigations. As we train people and make sure we give them the skills hopefully this will also give them the confidence to initiate things themselves. So we have the training; giving people the skills and the information they need but we will also be lunching an activism fund next year, which will financially support different initiatives even outside The Black Fish. What we’re doing is building a solid community, a movement of people that can get active in marine activism. It will move beyond just the promotion of our own logo and our own organisation. I think that the training aspect is incredibly important to really build a bigger community.

How are you raising funds for the training, will you be able to get government funding or local councils interested in training?

It will take a combination of things; we will need to get some funding for it, part of that might be more structured educational grants, but there will need to be a minimum fee for people to pay. We want it to be something that’s accessible. We want to make sure that we get the people that are really interested in marine activism work and that they want to get involved. Even if they then go and work for another organisation or initiative then that’s good. So we’re going to have to work out the best way to do that.

On a more personal note, how did you get into marine conservation?

I was involved from a very young age, growing up with parents who encouraged me to have an appreciation of nature and to be outside all the time, I guess that’s where it starts. When I got a little bit older I became involved with more alternative people that were asking questions, some were involved in direct action elements. I got involved with the Dutch Earth First crew when I was 14/15. So it was at a quite young age that I got involved in environmental activism. But then it was quite a long time, nearly 10 years before I read an article about whaling and realised that it was still happening in Antarctica. The Japanese whaling fleet goes out there and kills whales even though it’s illegal. I read this article and I though that it was weird, when I was younger I remember all the saving the whale campaigns and I thought whaling was banned. Then I got more interested in it and soon it had moved beyond the whaling, I started reading about what was happening in the oceans. It was a big wake up call for me. I had spent years campaigning for the protection of a small local woodland, which, don’t get me wrong, it’s very important but you know, when we’re talking about the whole destruction of the largest biodiversity we have on Earth where most species are impacted; we’re loosing more species in the last few decades than we have in the last century. This is where it’s at; this is where we really should be putting all our direct efforts. So in terms of marine conservation that was a big wake up call. And then I thought this is it: I’m dedicating my time and my life to this.

What is your most memorable marine experience?

I worked with the Sea Shepherd for 3 years, that was when we went to Antarctica and I guess there were quite a few memorable moments. It’s not necessarily one moment but the fact that there were people from all over the world with all sorts of backgrounds that get together to pull off a very big and ambitious campaign. And together with like-minded people everyone worked very hard, everyone has made a lot of personal sacrifice to be there and everyone wanted to make it work, no one wanted to be seen to be working less than anyone else. Working with the crew, getting the ship ready, for me that was incredibly inspiring and when I left the Sea Shepard I was thinking that so much more needed to be done. Sea Shepherd has enough people but we should do more. The legacy of being with Sea Shepard, what Sea Shepard is and what should carry on from that is the fact that it should also encourage and inspire people to do more things. So I think that is the point that inspires me to see the bigger picture and setting up The Black Fish was a natural progression from that.

The funding for your ship, I know you’ve been in discussions, how is that going?

All that I can say about is that we’re talking… It’s a lot of money so what I can say is that we are very hopeful. We know that if not right now, if not in the next month or two months, it might be next year or will definitely be the year after. This ship is coming and it is very badly needed, there is an incredible amount of work we can do with it. We are planning to stay in the Mediterranean for a number of campaigns with this vessel. The vessel can be smaller compared to what other organisations have in terms of ships and that’s means that it will be very cost effective. It is also clear that the ship might spend a few months in port here and there at the beginning, but it’s going to do increasingly more campaigning and we can imagine that at some point it will be out at sea doing campaigns for the majority of the year, so it would be very cost effective.

Outside the Mediterranean are you looking at any other initiatives to get involved?

Apart from the Mediterranean, the Baltic Sea is another area where in the coming years we want to focus on. The Baltic Sea is similar to the Mediterranean, an area which has quite a small passage and then it’s pretty much a dead end, so there are very few nutrients reaching the Baltic Sea. There are many conflicts in terms of overfishing and pollution is a very big problem. Problems in the past involved driftnets, overfishing of cod, a lot of illegal activities from Polish trawlers, Russian ships coming in, longline finishing, ghost nets. The weather can get quite bad out there and so the ghost nets just drift around. There is a lot of work to do there and I think we’re seeing potential there for campaigns. We’re set up in Sweden so in terms of campaign efforts we really want to start doing things there as well. And in the future hopefully we will start in other areas such as the Atlantic, Arctic and there are definitely other areas within Europe.

What about the Black Sea?

Yes we want to include the Black Sea, and maybe even the Red Sea, when we get towards the Indian Ocean I guess then it gets a little bit far. We’re going to have to see. By staying in the Mediterranean we are recognising that there are so many issues that there is no point in taking a ship there, doing an action, claiming success, getting the media attention and then leave again for something else. The point is that we want to stay there and build on the work. For example, in Greece we can help by doing a campaign there. I love the fact that we can go there and support an organisation with all the local knowledge and the campaigning that they already do with our vessel. So we don’t have to do our own campaigns everywhere but we will increasingly work and support local, smaller organisations that have no access to ships or vessels but could really benefit from us helping them out. And then, doing a two, four or six week campaign potentially could be fairly cost effective. It’s exciting that we could be able to maximise the usage of a vessel.

If the current situation doesn’t improve in the Mediterranean, realistically, how long does the bluefin tuna have before it’s over?

Two or three years ago WWF stated that the breeding or spawning population of the bluefin tuna had about five years left. Some fishing has stopped and there is now less illegal overfishing than before. If we look at 2007 total they reckon that half of the Bluefin tuna caught was illegal and even the legal quota was double the amount of what could sustainably be caught so the impact was huge and that was a big wake up call. We may drag a few years out of it but it’s definitely on the decline and it’s very difficult to judge. This is another thing: the fishing industry is very quick to bring in to question and to doubt any evidence. They question any scientific evidence that pushes for conservation. So far the responsibility to supply the data on healthy fish stocks has been on those that are looking for enforcement whereas what should have happened is that the fishing industry should have the responsibility to get the evidence that fish stocks are healthy before they can fish them. It’s not a cautious approach to say: ‘oh you want us to fish less you prove it, you prove how bad it is’; when it should be: ‘if you want to continue fishing you prove that you can continue fishing’. The problem is that we are continuing to exploit a species that we know relatively little about. It’s scary.

Do you have any advice for people on what they can do with their diet to help avoid unsustainable fish, possibly to buying other species of fish?

What we’re trying to do with The Black Fish is to push things away from promoting a certain type of consumption…The real problem is the actual consumption. There is an over consumption of seafood, we are eating too much seafood period. The unsustainability in the seafood industry is in the western world. In Europe we eat more seafood than we can possibly catch ourselves. Last year was the first year when we needed to import more seafood than we could catch with the European fishing fleet. That is very problematic and in terms of peoples’ diet if anything the consumption of seafood needs to be very controversial and that is something we are working on. We are not necessarily telling people what they should and shouldn’t do but we do not promote sustainable fishing initiatives as we see that a lot of them aren’t truly sustainable. There is serious concern around some of the sustainable fishing label certifications but also we want people to be critical, we want people to find out about fishing. I think if most people knew what really happens with the fishing industry then they would choose to eat as little tuna or fish as possible.

What about the big supermarkets have you had any contact with them? Some of the ones in the UK have changed their ways a bit, starting with Sainsbury when they have switched to “sustainable” line caught tuna.

Again just because tuna is line-caught doesn’t make it sustainable, and the reason it doesn’t make it sustainable is that you have to look at the overall capacity of that fleet, what the impact is and how much are they fishing? How long is the fishing season? For example, look at Greece. In Greece a great deal of people say: look at the fishing ships they are relatively small so it’s sustainable, but if you think about it and if you then look at France for example where there are some major big super trawlers, actually Greece has roughly 15,000 registered fishing vessels so the total fishing capacity of all those small ships is more than a few of those super trawlers in France. So just because something is line caught doesn’t mean it’s not damaging when actually all the Tuna species are overfished and all of them are in trouble. So in the next 10 – 15 years all the Tuna if we carry on like this will disappear.

Greenpeace have a new campaign “Support your local fisherman” do you think they are going about it the wrong way?

We’re not saying that we have all the answers, we think there are a variety of tactics, there are a variety of strategies and all those will push towards a similar thing. I think we need to move away from the idea that changing to a different type of consumption will be enough. Consumption is actually the issue, the problem is that we are eating too much fish, every fish that is taken out of the ocean is a fish that will not come back so in that sense we are eating wild animals. People wouldn’t dream of eating Rhino meat or Tiger meat or Panda meat because they know that these animals might go extinct but when it comes to fish suddenly there is a different type of attitude. So it’s very much about changing the attitude toward consumption. We feel that promoting somehow ‘sustainable’ fishing consumption when in actual fact a lot of these fish aren’t sustainable and they don’t reduce overfishing but their direct impact on fisheries is little less bad then we think that we are giving people the wrong message. We see more value in gathering people around the issue, working on investigations, doing some specific campaigning on enforcement rather than getting involved in dialogue with supermarkets or with producers or the fishing industries. We know where their loyalties and their interests lie and there is big money to be made from the seafood industry. Many organisations already do that they work within the industry; in our eyes we need to start talking to ordinary people and work with them. We need to work with the general public and create a public movement and awareness to tackle these issues.

 The Black Fish has grown from the involvement of many people. Their involvement makes a direct difference because when people get involved and take the initiative to do something, helping with fund raising, stalls, organising awareness raising events or helping secure specific in kind donations for the campaign; all these things are what actually help us do what we do.”     Wiestse van der Werf


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