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HomeArchiveAn interview with Sea Shepherd’s Alex Cornelissen

An interview with Sea Shepherd’s Alex Cornelissen

International conservation group Sea Shepherd has been all over the news in recent years, thanks to the group’s aggressive tactics to protect marine species around the world and the media savvy of its 61-year-old founder, Paul Watson.

Watson became a household name in Costa Rica when he was arrested in Germany in May on Costa Rican charges that he endangered the lives of Tico fishermen in a high-seas confrontation off the coast of Guatemala in 2002. Sea Shepherd accused the fishermen of illegally fishing and finning sharks.

The incident was documented in the film “Sharkwater,” where Costa Rican fishermen aboard the Varadero I are seen fishing sharks.

Interpol issued two active red notices for Watson, who fled house arrest in Germany. One notice is from Costa Rica and another is from Japan, which hopes to stop Sea Shepherd from battling the Japanese whaling fleet in the Southern Ocean, the subject of Animal Planet’s television series “Whale Wars.”

Alex Cornelissen, director of Sea Shepherd’s operations in the Galapagos Islands and the group’s director for Latin America, also captains the Bob Barker, a main vessel in Sea Shepherd’s fleet against Japanese whalers.

The 44-year-old Dutch captain spoke with The Tico Times during a visit to Costa Rica. Excerpts follow:

TT: What’s the status of Paul Watson’s case in Costa Rica?

Paul Watson

Sea Shepherd founder Paul Watson, wanted in Japan and Costa Rica, is ready to do battle again this year against Japanese whalers. “Operation Zero Tolerance” in the Southern Ocean starts this month.


AC: Because of legal issues, I really can’t talk about the case. We’re pretty much where we were the last time we spoke. Only now, Paul is listed on a red notice by Interpol based on the same testimony, and obviously, Japan took the opportunity to present their own red notice. We have two red notices that are in our opinion clearly politically motivated.

A red notice really doesn’t mean anything. It’s just a request from Interpol to contact them when someone who is red-noticed enters a country. And then Interpol will contact the requesting country, letting them know that a person has entered that country. Japan and Costa Rica, in this case, can present a request for provisional arrest. And then that person can be held while that country investigates whether they’re going to extradite. In the case of Japan, we’re worried because Japan has a 95-97 percent conviction rate, and if Paul entered Japan he would never leave.

The funny thing about Japan is that the whole case, the whole red notice is based on testimony of one guy, Pete Bethune, who was arrested for boarding a [Japanese] whaling ship. He was then taken to Japan, and there he pretty much pointed the finger at Paul saying Paul made him do it, even though we have video evidence proving differently. But because we were not heard in Japan, the Japanese government decided to prosecute Paul, which is what they wanted anyway. So they’re using Pete Bethune’s testimony to get to Paul.

Obviously they don’t want us to leave port because we’ve been very successful in stopping Japanese whalers. So, they’ll do whatever they can, and $30 million of tsunami relief money will bring you a long way to stop a nongovernmental organization that is operating on a budget that is less than a third of that.

They’re definitely getting increasingly worried, though. We’re keeping the whale kill numbers down.

It’s very important we get these charges against Paul dropped. Obviously it’s a legal matter and the judges need to decide, but we need a little pressure to make this case go away, because really what are we talking about? A fisherman who allegedly broke his finger 10 years ago? A fisherman who was convicted the year before for illegally fishing in Galapagos? When I got back to Galapagos, I started investigating and found out that the same vessel with the same crew [involved in the 2002 incident that led to Watson’s arrest] was arrested in 2001 in Galapagos for illegal entry into the Galapagos Marine Reserve. …

Ideally we’d like to see this case dropped altogether. We don’t think it’s fair. He’s being charged with attempted shipwrecking with injury. And what you can see on the video is no damage; they went immediately to check and nobody was injured. A couple months later, they said there was all this damage, broken windows, etc. It’s all fiction.

In the [Costa Rican daily] La Nación interview [with fishermen involved in the 2002 incident aboard the Varadero I], one guy was saying, “I feared for my life, the windows on the bridge broke,” etc. When you look at the video, not one window broke. It’s complete fabrication. The story also mentions this guy who came back and was so depressed that he eventually became addicted to drugs. Hang on, so now we’re responsible for someone using drugs? It’s completely ridiculous.

I don’t know what sort of fishermen you have in Costa Rica, but I’ve been through a lot worse than a small collision. I’ve been in 50-foot waves thinking you’re going to lose the vessel. I think they used the press to get sympathy for their case, and I think it worked. They printed whatever the guys said without checking the facts.

Tell me about Sea Shepherd’s campaign to stop Japanese whaling in the Southern Ocean.

This past year for us was the most disastrous campaign. First, we lost the Brigitte Bardot [Sea Shepherd’s 35-meter monohull trimaran], then we actually had a serious engine problem with the Bob Barker that was not shown on “Whale Wars,” but basically we were out of commission for the entire campaign. We blew our turbo chargers and continued at a maximum speed of 10 knots. But nobody knew that, so the Japanese at some points had two harpoon ships following us. So we figured, OK, we can’t do anything because of a broken engine, so we might as well keep them busy and keep them out of the game. That way we were very successful. We kept the kill quota down to 26 percent, which was still more than the year before, at 17 percent. But if you think about it, a small organization with three ships and a bunch of volunteers manages to keep Japanese whalers on their knees for two consecutive years.

This year, the operation is called “Zero Tolerance,” and our goal is to reach a zero percent kill quota. We want to meet [Japanese whalers] up in the North Pacific; we’re going to wait for the whaling fleet just outside of Japan. As soon as they leave the 200-mile limit, we’ll be waiting for them.

We’ll have four ships this year, instead of three; we have eight small boats, 120 volunteers, a helicopter, three drones and a bunch of supplies. The good thing is thanks to the success we’ve had over the last few years, we’ve grown as an organization, and we’ve expanded our toolbox. Meanwhile, the Japanese whaling fleet has taken enormous economic losses, and we’re hoping that this year, if we can manage a zero percent kill quota, it will be the final blow to the industry. …

Last year was my fifth Antarctic campaign, and it was the worst I’ve ever experienced. We were going from one storm to another. It was absolutely horrible. We were going through 15-meter waves and storm after storm. Of course that also made things difficult for the Japanese whaling fleet.

Our ships are very seaworthy. The Japanese ships are made for speed, very narrow, very sharp, with pointy bows and lots of weight in the bottom of the ships. So they’re riding very fast and if they take a roll, they shoot up very quickly. When they hit a storm, you can see those boats slamming up and down like a cork. They must be very uncomfortable. We know they must absolutely hate us right now. At some point in the past campaign they were changing ships so they could get a break and other crews could come in.

So, obviously Paul is safe from arrest while he’s at sea. But will this case in Japan ever go away?

In international waters, there’s nothing that can be done [to arrest Watson]. We’re looking at our options. Our primary goal is to get both arrest warrants dropped. We want to get the Costa Rican case resolved first, and then the Japanese case. We’re working on that with legal teams all over the world. We’ve got lawyers in Germany, the United States, Costa Rica and Ecuador. I think our primary goal at the moment is to get the Costa Rica case resolved, because that’s one red notice that will go away, one international arrest warrant that will go away, and then we’ll focus on the case in Japan. And again, the case in Japan is based solely on the testimony of one person. It’s ridiculous. …

Of course, Japan doesn’t want to drop this case. They’re doing whatever they can. We have a court case in [the U.S. city of] Seattle; they’re trying to get an injunction to prevent us from leaving port. Of course, they failed miserably and now they’re appealing. The court of appeals is going to send the case back to the same judge that ruled in our favor.

They tried to get Paul arrested with an international arrest warrant, they’ve tried to stop the ships from leaving port, strip our flags by pressuring the Dutch government, and they’ve tried to pressure the Australians to stop us from leaving port. They’re doing everything they can to try to stop us from going out this year.

Where do other nations stand on this?

In the international community many countries are against what the Japanese whalers are doing. Obviously, the whole world is against whaling. Everybody sees that this is not scientific whaling. It’s commercial whaling. They’re just testing the waters to resume commercial whaling, and they admit it. This whole scientific program they have is to keep their vessels going and keep the industry alive.

If other nations are against whaling, what is needed to stop it?

Increased political pressure from other governments. The problem is Japan is an economic power and trade negotiations are more important than a couple of whales. It’s as simple as that. But on the other hand, if you look at the whale-watching industry in Australia, which generates about $300-$400 million a year, and then you look at the Japanese whaling industry, which is now saying they want to target humpbacks this year, if they would kill the humpbacks, then the humpbacks would stay away from the whale-watching boats, and that would mean that a $300 million industry would cease to exist or would be greatly diminished. For what? For 200 sailors who make a living off of whaling. They can easily do something else.

The Japanese government owns the vessels, and they’re not making a profit. They have serious losses due to the intervention of Sea Shepherd over the last few years. It’s not even economically viable. It’s plain stubbornness.

The Japanese say they are conducting research. Others say that’s a loophole. What has to happen to really ban whaling as opposed to allowing it through these loopholes?

Enforcement of international conservation law. What we’re doing on the high seas is nothing more than enforcing international law. What Japan is doing, even though they’re hiding behind so-called research, it’s a commercial hunt. And people need to recognize that. Even the IWC [International Whaling Commission] is saying it’s not research. Plus, they’re killing whales in an established whale sanctuary. They’re targeting an endangered species, and they’re using factory vessels inside the Antarctic zone, which is another violation. So, it’s clear what they’re doing is illegal. They’re breaking numerous treaties, they’re in violation of an Australian court order, and they simply don’t give a damn, because there’s no enforcement.

What about Costa Rica?

It’s a nice country. [Laughs] There are a couple of developments in Costa Rica that are promising. The new law that’s been written about sharks definitely has some future, but there’s still a long way to go. As it is now, the law’s not going to work. They need to make some adjustments.

But still, we at Sea Shepherd are against shark finning, and shark fishing altogether. We think that the only solution is to stop shark fishing globally. Shark populations have plummeted so much, and all these measures that are being put out by the European Union, and now by Costa Rica, that say you can still kill sharks as bycatch? No, that’s not going to be sufficient. Plus, you’re always going to keep this back door open by creating a loophole. As our experience shows with Japanese whaling, loopholes are not the way to go.

I think it’s really important, which is what we’re seeing at Galapagos, is that tourism operators need to take a position; people working in tourism need to step up and rise to the occasion and defend their rights on tourism. Basically, you’ve got a couple fishermen who are destroying the livelihoods of a lot more people who work in tourism. Tourism is a sustainable industry that will go on forever, whereas shark finning will eventually stop. It’ll happen in our lifetime. If we continue killing sharks, in the next 10-20 years there won’t be any more sharks. …

What about the argument that these resources belong to all Costa Ricans?

I think the most important thing here is not to consider them resources. And also, they don’t belong to Costa Rica. We’re talking about an ocean and nothing in the ocean belongs to anybody. We’re talking about wild animals that do not belong to anybody. You can’t say that this part of the water belongs to a country. I know that from a government’s point of view that is the case. Of course, EEZs [Exclusive Economic Zones] are established. But if you look at it, it’s madness. You can’t say 200 miles belongs to us. Animals migrate, so animals now inside your waters two days later will be in Ecuador’s waters, so we transfer ownership of that animal? It’s an insane way of thinking. We don’t own nature, we’re part of nature, and it’s really important that people understand that we have to stop separating ourselves from nature. When we kill nature, we kill ourselves. …

What about regional initiatives?

I think that’s finally getting the point. Ideally, in the end, we’ll see a global network of control, sort of like a United Nations to patrol the oceans. That would be ideal. Corridors are a step towards that, and it’s also a step toward letting go of the idea that this is our ocean. As people understand with the Eastern Pacific corridor, there’s migration between the parks, and the animals are not bound or owned by certain countries. So the area that needs protection is much larger. And it’s really important that people start thinking that way.

At Costa Rica’s Cocos Island, fishing boats are sitting right outside the protected area. Some go in there at night.

We’ve got the same thing in Galapagos. We’ve got the Galapagos Archipelago, in which the area is protected 40 miles away from the baseline; so the lines connecting the other side of the island, and then 40 miles out to the ocean, is the national park. So, what you’re seeing in the national park’s control center with a VMS-satellite-detection system is that all the Ecuadorian fishing vessels are sitting right at the 40-mile mark, just outside. But some of them are sitting there for two or three days in a row. It’s pretty obvious what they’re doing.

At night they’re sending in their lanchas and fishing illegally. They send in the little speedboats at night and put out their lines, wait until early morning, pick it up and go back to their boats. If they got caught, they’d lose a few lanchas. But the main ship would stay out of the picture.

What can you do to prevent that?

Patrol. If I compare Galapagos to Cocos Island, I think Costa Rica has such an easy job to protect that island. We’re talking about an archipelago [in Ecuador] with islands and with shadows. We’ve got an AIS system with nine repeater sites, so we have shadows in between the islands, and we can never get full coverage. But with Cocos, it’s so simple. It’s one island. You put one [radar tower] on top and you’re done. And enforcement would be so simple. You put radar, you put AIS, VMS, whatever you have, and you put two boats, one on either side of the island, and nobody would ever fish there. It’s that simple.

With absolute minimal effort you could get maximum results, 100 percent. So I don’t understand why it hasn’t happened yet.

There have been offers, not only from Sea Shepherd, but also from other NGOs to help with this. …

You have to say nobody is allowed to come inside these waters. And if you get caught, you cannot just say you have to be fishing to get convicted and prosecuted. You say that by merely being there you’re in violation.

Boats have been caught there many times and nothing ever happens.

We’re working with that in Galapagos, trying to improve environmental laws. We’ll hopefully soon have a court that specializes in environmental violations. It would be the first one ever. And now for the first time we had a judge deny bail to fishermen caught in the park. In the past, they’ve always been released because they said they don’t have a proper jail, food, etc. Then they go to the continent and they never show up to court, and the case expires. Now for the first time, we have a judge who said I’m not going to grant bail. That is a big deal. … We’re celebrating these small victories, because that’s the only way we’re going to get there, step by step.

We have vessel confiscation and loss of license, but what we want is the precedence of people going to jail. Because that would send a very clear signal that if you come to Galapagos, you lose your boat, you lose your license and you go to jail. And that will be a very strong incentive for people to rethink their possible entry into a protected area. I think that’s the only way. You have to scare them.

You could control Cocos for an initial investment of less than $3 million and then a recurring annual cost of a couple hundred thousand dollars. I can guarantee there are NGOs that would be happy to help. We’re still willing to help, despite everything that happened and these ridiculous events that continue to unfold; but if we get the opportunity to help protect Cocos, we’re there.

What’s at stake with these marine conservation efforts?

Fish are disappearing. The fishing sector is weaker than it’s ever been. People are losing money, everybody’s losing their businesses, and boats are being sold, because there’s no more fish. And not just in Costa Rica, everywhere. We’ve pretty much fished it all out. It’s definitely time that people come to the conclusion that maybe we’ve done enough to the oceans, maybe it’s time to treat the oceans a little more cautiously. …

We live on land and therefore don’t look at the oceans. It’s not just here in Costa Rica, it’s worldwide. The oceans are being ravaged by illegal activity, not just fishing, but also toxic dumping, some by governments. People don’t care because they don’t know about it. Here you can drive into the forest and if someone is killing animals, you say it’s ridiculous.

If we continue to kill our oceans, it’s going to affect life on land. People talk about protecting the rain forest because it provides our oxygen, but the oceans provide 70 percent or more of all the oxygen on our planet. If we kill the oceans, we kill ourselves. …

I do see a growing movement worldwide where people are becoming more aware of what’s happening. People are starting to see on TV that things are really bad in the oceans. People want to help, but they don’t know how to help. Maybe it’s our job to provide them with that knowledge.

How can people help?

People are talking about sustainable fisheries, but I’m personally against eating any kind of fish, because I think at this point, that’s the only thing that’s going to save the oceans. We’re too late with all these measures. … We need to be far more serious about conservation. But if I go and say stop eating fish, people will say that’s extreme, so I can’t say that. I can’t say it in Ecuador, not even in Europe. So, what I always say is stop eating tuna. Tuna boats are not only killing the tuna, which is quite a problem right now because tuna populations are dropping worldwide, but they’re also killing dolphins. And everyone wants to see dolphins, so by eating tuna you’re directly contributing to the killing of dolphins.

I think if we would have stuck to going out ourselves into the ocean with a rod and a hook, catching a fish, preparing the fish and eating it, we wouldn’t have problems now. But because of commercial fisheries, there’s been so much destruction going on and everybody wants to go to the fish market and be presented with this array of choices. …

In Europe, there are no fish left. We’re fishing in Africa, all over the world. This huge factory trawler from a Dutch company has been blocked in Australia. We started a petition to block them from fishing in Australian waters, and the federal government banned them from fishing in Australian waters. This is an important step to ban these commercial vessels from raping the waters. They’re huge trawlers, they’re swooping up thousands of tons. European fleets are the most destructive. We always point the finger at places like Costa Rica, but we’re just as guilty in Europe. Fishing fleets from Europe are fishing in Africa.

Somali pirates were poor fishermen who could no longer sustain their families. They went out and pretty much attacked the foreign fleets fishing in their waters, because they were going out with their lines and catching just enough to feed their families, and all the sudden, these foreign fleets came in and there was nothing left. So they got really angry. If you go to a fish market in western Africa, all you can buy are fish heads. Those are the parts the Europeans don’t want, and they give them to the local market and all the filets are being transported to Europe in the fish markets.

The first Somali pirates were just poor fishermen. We are responsible for piracy in Somali waters. …

But how can you tell people who have been eating this for generations not to? You can wait until there are no more fish left, or you can just keep hammering away at the point.

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