Wieste Van Der Werf, founder of the Black Fish Organisation, is ruthless in his pursuit of saving marine life
Our oceans are being plundered by reckless criminals: over 800kg of fish illegally taken from the water every second.
The scale of overfishing is so vast it has been connected to organised crime. The barons propping up this lucrative trade are sophisticated with a number of resources at their disposal. After all, it’s an attractive proposition: high profits from fish sold with only a minor chance of being caught. There are of course regulatory quotas in place against overfishing but it is extremely difficult to monitor this activity. Add to this the high prices attached to endangered species and it’s easy to be bleak about the future of marine life.
Enter Wietse Van Der Werf, founder of the Black Fish organisation which aims to end illegal overfishing, and one of the most exciting voices on the conservation scene. This former violinmaker (‘I was interested in woodwork and violins are the hardest thing to make,’) is making huge waves in an industry in danger of sinking itself.
Wietse, who is currently working on a number of projects under The Black Fish banner to fight fishing crime, recently co-authored a report on the topic. The report says: “Because it is largely treated as a regulatory matter, illegal, unregulated and unreported [IUU] fishing has been allowed to flourish. Perpetrators are levied minimal fines, if anything, and are permitted to continue their illicit and profitable activities. Far from constituting a harmless lack of compliance with regulations, IUU fishing destroys marine ecosystems, threatens food security, harms legitimate fishers and damages the economy and state governance. This report presents a wide range of case studies selected from across the globe, to argue that IUU fishing is in fact a dangerous and highly organized form of transnational crime, and one associated with other illegal, violent and destructive practices.”
So what exactly does he plan to do about this problem? There are a number of issues at hand, from monitoring overfishing and gathering evidence, to ensuring that evidence is exploited fully to ensure lasting change-preferably in the pursuit of legislative change.
One of his projects is the Wildlife Air Service-the first civilian air service funded by private aviation. He tells Vegan Life: “The thinking was, ‘how can we get aircraft in the sky?’ That is the best place to monitor activity from but it is expensive. There are a lot of private pilots, who might not care about conservation but they love flying so they started to do the patrols by flying. How do we involve new demographics of people who are not vegan, or not already involved in animal rights campaigning?
“We need more people involved I was talking to a guy who says he doesn’t care about conservation but he loves his Cessna [light aircraft] and that’s the way in. People do contribute where their heart lies. As activists we started from the point of saying there are problems, we need to do something about it. And of course the more people learn about something the more they care. Someone who isn’t interested about conservation can become very passionate.
“You start with the question: What do you love? If you can apply that passion, people will feel ownership and become more interested. We all started at a point then we met a person or heard a talk, getting inspired when we were exposed to those ideas. The animal rights world is very closed, and often seems to be many very similar people-usually young, white and middle class. When we try to open this out, we can find a much bigger pool of people to work with.”
Another answer was to launch the Citizen Inspector Network. This is a truly innovative project. As Wietse says, ‘this is about ordinary people tackling organised crime’. The programme recruits volunteers, then trains them to identify illegal activity. The programme was inspired by the Royal Observer Corps, a civil defence organisation that monitored enemy aircraft. Founded in 1925, the group made its mark during the Battle of Britain, a wartime operation that took place between July 1940 and June 1941. he Royal Observer Corps passed on essential information to strategically direct a hugely outnumbered RAF.
“Civil society has so much to offer,” Wietse says. “What we have going on now is fragmentation, but governments and lobbyists are merging. Government does not always have the expertise and need a helping hand which NGOS like the Black Fish can give them. Working with government bodies and local law enforcement agencies against illegal fishing can work well. Let’s enforce the law together through high seas intervention. The crime aspect of this fishing gets people on board. The moment you talk about illegality you don’t need to be vegan or an activist.”
And talk about it he is: A speaking tour is lined up for Germany in September passing through 17 cities in three weeks, and with a massive number of lectures already under his belt Wietse is working hard to bring the issue to the masses. His colleague WHO has also been invited to talk at the International Animal Rights Gathering in Luxemburg early September. Wits is becoming an increasingly public figure, with large outlets-notably the Guardian-writing about his work in almost forensic detail. Could this affect any of his surveillance work? Or, bearing in mind the criminals involved with illegal fishing, make his position dangerous?
He says: “Well I guess I am mostly the person getting more known, which is important since I’m the public face of our efforts. However, I’m less involved in the field (at least for port and market inspections) and since we’re training more and more people, it is increasingly less likely that a Citizen Inspector is recognised.
“But what is true is of course the fact that as we get more known, grow in size and do more ambitious projects, our success may well meet more resistance and possible retaliation. Our top priority will always be to ensure the safety and wellbeing of our people, so while we continue to launch more ambitious investigations, we continue to weigh up the risks.”
And these risks can be high. In 2014, Cambodian journalist Suon Chan was beaten to death by 10 fishermen. Authorities believe he may have been killed because of his investigative work around illegal fishing. And the involvement of a criminal element in the industry could be global, with high profile crime-rings involved.
According to The Black Fish report on fishing crime: “Organized crime’s use of fishing vessels and involvement in illegal fishing has been alleged in many regions of the world, from New York’s Fulton Fish Market to groups from the former Soviet Union, China, South America and South Africa. All of Italy’s major Mafia syndicates are involved in maritime transport and fishing.
“In September 2004 seventy members of the ‘Francesco Muto clan’ were issued arrest warrants and charged with extortion against the tuna canning company Tonno Callipo, based in Vibo Valentia. In Western Sicily, tuna ranches paid high sums of money to local Mafiosi clans associated with Cosa Nostra. The WWF also reports that the Cosa Nostra Mazzei clan was heavily involved in fish purchases in the Catania and Portopalo fish-markets.”
But it is these risks that push Wietse and the organisation to work in different way. And this ambition is helping to push the profile of the organisation and even challenge perceptions about the traditional face of activism. For example, Wietse talks about wearing a suit when meeting government organisations: “First impressions make a big impact, and if the compromise I have to make is wearing a suit to make my message heard, I can do that.
“It isn’t about being a rebel on the outside anymore, it is about joining forces to maximise potential.”