Protecting ocean life

Jeff Hansen


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Meghan Lodwick:

Welcome to a La Trobe University podcast. I'm Meghan Lodwick and today, I'm speaking with Australian Director of Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, Jeff Hansen, who happens to be a La Trobe graduate.

Jeff, thanks for your time.

Jeff Hansen:

Hi, Meghan.

Meghan Lodwick:

Tell me about some of Sea Shepherd Conservation Society's mission and strategies.

Jeff Hansen:

Well, Sea Shepherd's main mission is to protect the biodiversity of our ocean. We work under the United Nations World Charter for Nature to do that, which gives non-government organizations the authority to uphold international conservation law.

There's all the rules and regulations to protect our oceans and protect marine habitat, but there's no enforcement and until there's a government to do that, then we'll step in and do what we can to protect our oceans.

We found that the most effective way to hurt the poachers out there, and the illegal activity, is to hurt them in the hip pocket. So each time they go out, they spend more and more money to try and catch whether it's blue fin or whales, but they're coming home with less and less quota, and fewer and fewer animals because we're becoming more and more effective in our tactics. We're getting more ships out there to defend our oceans.

Each year, we've become stronger and they've become weaker. We had them over $200 million in debt, to the point that last year's Antarctic Whale Defense Campaign, they only came down with half their fleet the one factory vessel and the three harpoon ships.

Meghan Lodwick:

Jeff, how did you become involved with Sea Shepherd?

Jeff Hansen:

A number of years ago, I was in Melbourne and I saw this black ship parked down at the docklands. I'd always had a passion for conservation. I was taken on board for a tour and I saw a video of what this organization did, and I was completely blown away. It really changed my life forever. From that point on, I just got involved with volunteering and I ended up on campaign. My first campaign was operation Migaloo and we stopped over 400 whales from being slaughtered. So, once it gets in your blood and you see how passionate and dedicated all the Sea Shepherd's supporters and members are, it really sort of takes over your life, I guess.

Meghan Lodwick:

What kind of role does the Sea Shepherd play when it comes to government and institution?

Jeff Hansen:

We talked about Sea Shepherd's goals as saving the biodiversity of our oceans. There's all the laws, the rules, the regulations out there to defend and protect marine ecosystems and habitats but there's no enforcement, usually through the lack of economic will.

Sea Shepherd's ultimate goal, really, is to put ourselves out of business. We would love for the Australian government to be doing what we're doing. It's an establishing whale sanctuary, the hunting of endangered species in Australian waters in violation of an Australian federal court ruling and the Australian economic exclusion zone.

We would love the ability to put pressure on the Australian government so that they would eventually do what we're doing down there, and we can go and do something else and hopefully, other governments, too, could step in and do the work that we're doing. Because ultimately, we'd love to see like an international policing body, Perhaps through the United Nations that actually goes out protecting and defending the oceans. Sea Shepherd shouldn't be left up to volunteers and a non-government organization to defend and protect our oceans. It's really the navies of the world and the U.N. should be out there, protecting our oceans.

Meghan Lodwick:

So, what would you say to a roomful of future politicians, Australian politicians?

Jeff Hansen:

There's a lot that you can make a difference for and if you do get in a position of power, then put the environment first because we need every other species on this planet in order to survive. We need worms, beetles, bugs, lizards, snakes, fish; they don't need us, we need them and we really ought to give them the respect that they deserve. Don't be fearful of getting involved with organizations like Sea Shepherd. Come and volunteer with our stores and our chapters. We've got doctors, lawyers, engineers, from all walks of life, highly educated, well-respected people in the community of all races, including Japan that helped this organization.

So, you come and be involved with Sea Shepherd and be proud of our own and show support, or even crew at sea. It's pretty easy to find out more about Sea Shepherd, it's just a sign up with and then they can see it for themselves what this organization is about.

Meghan Lodwick:

Some have said that the Sea Shepherd focuses too much on whales and seals, diverting attention away from equally important issues like overfishing. Are such comments fair?

Jeff Hansen:

Well, yes, Sea Shepherd's been on the front lines of defending whales over the past 30 years, but we've also been stopping things like the illegal driftnet operations going on and that's huge amounts of other sea life is being captured in those nets as well. Also, being trying to make people more aware of just the fact that our oceans are being heavily depleted, a lot of this is through the commercial fishing and their operations. So, Sea Shepherd and Captain Paul Watson's been on the forefront of that over the last 30 years.

Our most recent campaign that we're undertaking is to go after the blue fin tuna poachers right throughout the Mediterranean. That's a critically endangered species and it's an amazing warm-blooded, fast moving fish, the fastest fish in the ocean, and it's under the brink of extinction. The problem is that becomes close to extinction. The price of that species is going higher and higher and higher. Right now, I believe Mitsubishi is buying up a lot of the blue fin tuna and stockpiling them in these huge freezers because at the moment a blue fin tuna will go for anywhere up to $200,000 for a single fish. Now, if that species becomes extinct, then you're no longer sitting on a thousands of dollars per fish, you're sitting on a million dollar fish.

We really need to do more to protect all of our oceans and I think Sea Shepherd has been on the forefront of that and it hasn't just been about whales. It's been about dolphins, sharks, turtles, seals and in the Galapagos we've been working there for the last 11 years with the local enforcement and the federal police. We provide the vessels and the crew; they provide the enforcement officer and make the arrest. We're very lucky in the Galapagos that each year, we get a million dollars from the Dutch lottery and that's funded straight into the Galapagos, and we set up tracking system, satellites and radars to monitor vessels coming in and out of the marine sentry.

So to say that we only look after whales, I think is very unfair. I think we're doing the best we can with the resources we have, which is very limited to protect and defend our oceans for the benefit of us all.

Meghan Lodwick:

The Sea Shepherd's activities seem to fall into, kind of, a gray area when it comes to law. Given that international law is far from black and white, is it fair that Sea Shepherd explicitly presents itself as a law enforcement power?

Jeff Hansen:

Sea Shepherd campaigns are guided by the United Nations World Charter for Nature, which actually gives non-governmental organizations like Sea Shepherd the authority to uphold international conservation law. It sounds like a mouthful, but we have actually have proven that in a court of law.

In Canada, there was a problem where all the cod stocks have been completely depleted. What had happened was that Canadian government had mismanaged the cod stocks. So the fishermen were up in arms, they were out of work. So they put a ban into taking of any cod to try and let them recover. They still haven't recovered to this day.

But at that point in time, international vessels were coming into the Grand Banks and going after the cod. Sea Shepherd went in and intervened with Captain Paul Watson, and the Canadian coast guard came out and arrested Paul Watson and put him on trial.

Paul Watson pleaded that he was working under the guidance of United Nations World Charter for Nature. The judge said, "Is Canada a signatory of this?" and the prosecution said, "Yes, we are, your honour." Paul Watson was free to go.

So we've definitely proven that in a court of law, and we work under the guidance of the United Nations World Charter for Nature for all our campaigns. In fact, with the up and coming Mediterranean Blue fin Campaign, once again, we'll be keeping the United Nations posted on any investigations in any criminal action that we find and we've already been reaching out to them, and they're happy to receive that information and work with us on that.

Meghan Lodwick:

What is Sea Shepherd's position on small-scale whaling for cultural reasons by indigenous Canadian tribes? Shouldn't some whaling be allowed to indigenous minorities to uphold their cultural beliefs and values?

Jeff Hansen:

Well, there's a problem with a lot of our whales and dolphins and dugongs that they're hunted for traditional means, because a lot of them are endangered. There comes a point where you need to decide between the last species and culture. We really need every other species on this planet in order to survive, and the more species we lose, the less healthy our planet becomes.

Traditional means aren't really traditional means anymore; they're using power boats and shotguns and rifles; there's no real traditional means about it. There's now a lot of money to be made from different sorts of parts like we know with some part from the dugongs, are not necessarily being eaten but they're being shipped off to different parts of the Asian market for Chinese medicines and stuff like that. So, I think the days of the old traditional means are definitely out the window.

Meghan Lodwick:

This is obviously very dangerous work, what makes you put your life on the line for this cause?

Jeff Hansen:

Paul Watson's got a great analogy where he talks about, we're on a spaceship and there's two types of species on this spaceship; it's the passenger and the crew. The crew run this ship may give us the food we eat, the air we breathe, they regulate our climate, and the crew are the ants, the beetles, the bugs, the worms, the fish; they're the crew, we're the passengers and we're just having a good time. We're going to be in big trouble if we kill off the crew so we got to protect the crew.

The more you understand that that's the way that our world operates and the way that our world needs to run in order for us to survive. You just look at what we're doing to the world and its absolute insanity. It cannot last and we as a species cannot last with our current rate of extinction is just beyond precedence, the highest extinction rate ever on the face of the planet right now.

With up to 80 percent of the air that we breathe coming from the ocean, and you realize that our oceans are very, very sick and a lot of our marine life is either on a brink of extinction or unhealthy itself. You realize what's at stake and you realize that really no greater cause than to put your life on the line to save the oceans.

We have men and women who go off every day to fight for property and to fight for oil wells, to fight against terrorism and so forth, but we're talking about the saving of the mass extermination of the human species if we don't dig our heels and you really start to defend our oceans and all other inhabitants.

I think it's probably the most noble cause that anyone can really fight for, it's a far greater legacy to leave behind.

Meghan Lodwick:

It has been said that the Sea Shepherd does not make enough of an attempt to provide a moral defence of its activities, thereby alienating would-be supporters with cowboy tactics. Do you think the Sea Shepherd would benefit from a public relations arm, which would work harder to justify its tactics to the international community?

Jeff Hansen:

Sea Shepherd understands that our only defence, really, is the media. No matter how great our successes are and how great our achievements are, it doesn't really happen unless the media grab hold of it. Having said that, we are very limited in our resources and we do very much mark ourselves open to talking in any public arena, we're very much an open book, and our website lists everything we do and say. We talk to community groups and school groups. We talk to rotary clubs, girl guides, Advocacy Days here in Australia. So, we're really out there in the community, educating the masses on what we can all do to save our oceans. Any extra help with PR is always great if we had the resources to do it, but I think we would do the best we can with the resources we have.

More and more people are coming onboard with Sea Shepherd and starting to understand a bit more of the reasons why we are doing what we do. I mean, when I first started with Sea Shepherd over five years ago now, hardly anyone on the street had heard of Sea Shepherd or knew what Sea Shepherd was whereas more and more people will come up to you on the street and you're wearing a Sea Shepherd crew shirt and something I just say, thank you for the work that you do. There's a huge amount of support here in Australia and I'd say. And in my five or six years, I can only remember two people that I've come across that were against it.

Meghan Lodwick:

Why has Captain Paul Watson become a more vocal critic of Greenpeace in recent years? Doesn't such criticism risk causing an unhelpful division?

Jeff Hansen:

Each year, especially when Greenpeace hurt, they have actually being going down to Antarctica, they haven't been down there for the last three years. But each year, Paul Watson said, "Look, let's put our differences aside. We got a common goal which is to save the whales and let's work together." They refused to work with us, so much to the point where there's a documentary called "Battleship Antarctica" and there's an independent film crew onboard that vessel. Sea Shepherd is chasing a vessel in the fog and we believe that that vessel is the whaling fleet; it's actually not, it's a Greenpeace vessel.

The film crew who's on the Greenpeace vessel, The Esperanza, turns to the captain and says, "Why wouldn't you let Sea Shepherd know that you're Greenpeace and then they can use their fuel and resources to go look somewhere else for the whaling fleet?" and he turns around and says, "I don't want to work with those F's."

There's another point in the documentary where Sea Shepherd actually find the whaling fleet. We ring up the Esperanza captain and said, "Look, we have the fleet, here's the coordinates. Come and help us; come and assist." And he calls a meeting and says, "Sea Shepherd has given us the coordinates but I've decided, we're not going to go to where they are. We can find the whaling fleet on our own." So, he doesn't want to work with us and he's going to go look somewhere else, other than where the whaling fleet are.

We don't know what the issue is. There was a comment that Paul made years ago and someone said something about Greenpeace and he said, "Are you? What do you expect from the Avon Ladies of the conservation movement?" And I don't think there's a beginning to it. But on a lower level, there's a Sea Shepherd stall and a Greenpeace stall. They'll come up and talk to us, "I love what you guys are doing," and chat back and forth and some of them might sign up and become members of Sea Shepherd. But it's at that higher level that there's a big problem.

I don't know whether they are out of touch or lost their ways, but I'm sure they still do a lot of good. As far as the whaling goes, Sea Shepherd has been the only organization down there in the last three years defending the whales in the southern ocean whales' sentry.

Meghan Lodwick:

What have been some of the high points and some of the low points with Sea Shepherd?

Jeff Hansen:

Definitely, probably the lowest point for me was being on an Antarctic Whale Defence campaign and we were actually on the factory vessel for a number of days, and we were getting low on fuel. We knew there was a number of days still left in the whaling season and we had to return to port because we were low in fuel and we had to leave that factory vessel and we knew that as soon as we left, that vessel would resume whaling. So, I think that's one of the lowest points is, because of fuel we had to leave.

The highest points, I was involved in one campaign where I'd researched our ice charts and the way they map, and everything. I was in the bridge and I was a quarter master and that was my first campaign. As I was looking through the charts and looking through the weather patterns, I'd look at where the course of that ship was headed and to me, it's emotionally and also, from a thought process, that we were heading the wrong course, we're heading the wrong direction.

I called in the first officer and then Captain Paul came in later on, and I explained my reasoning behind why I believe we needed to head directly south and where I believed the whaling fleet was operating. I stepped back from that position and Paul Watson said, "OK. Let's head south," so we changed course and then I thought about it, "Oh my God, what have I done?" All these people from all over the world that have worked so hard to get this ship to the right place, to be on the whaling fleet, what if I was wrong?

But within a couple of hours, we had two harpooning vessels and the factory vessel on our radar, so that was definitely one of the highlights for me; to be really part of making that decision to find the factory vessel. Another highlight for me would be definitely this year. I wasn't on campaign, but we got a call from the ships to let us know that the whaling fleet was heading home over a month early because of our effective tactics in sitting on the slipway of the factory vessel and blocking them from being able to transfer whales.

It was amazing to see the past seven Antarctic Whale Defence campaigns and to finally have the whaling fleet heading home a month early and calling it quits. We've really become effective and stronger every year in our tactics. To be part of an organization that's made that happen, and not a governmental organization that really relies on the support of volunteers and support of all over the world take on the might of Japanese whaling fleet and a victory is just an amazing thing to be a part of.

When you go down to Antarctica and see the environment, see how pristine and beautiful it is, it's like another world. It's like this world but here doesn't exists. It's just hard to imagine this world existing when you see what's down there.

It's just incredible; like icebergs that are 30-40 meters high, and 9-10 kilometres long and in amongst that, there's pods of orcas, fin whales and humpback whales, and Minke whales. And all the way down there, you are seeing the aurora australis in the whole skies, a lot of it lights, dazzling and moving across the sky and you're just like, "What the whaling fleets doing down here is wrong." When you see how pristine and beautiful it is, you'd do anything to protect it.

Meghan Lodwick:

That's all the time we've got for La Trobe University podcast today. If you'd like to leave some feedback about this or any other podcast in the series or suggest a possible topic, you can get in touch with us at Jeff Hansen, thank you very much for your time.

Jeff Hansen:

Thanks, Meghan.

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