• Franklin Vega

Captain Alex Cornelissen CEO of Sea Shepherd talks with Bitacora about Seaspiricy

We interviewed Captain Alex Cornelissen, CEO of Sea Shepherd Global, regarding the premiere of the documentary Seaspiracy, Unsustainable Fishing. The film is among the 10 most-watched in the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom and Australia. We also spoke about Galapagos: “it is a special place that requires greater protection”.


The skull with the crossed trident and crook, the symbol of Sea Shepherd. Captain Alex Cornelissen poses in one of the 10 ships of the direct-action environmental NGO. Photo: Courtesy Sea Shephard


What has been the reception of the documentary Seaspiracy that reveals some practices of industrial fishing?

In just three days of exposure, we have exceeded expectations. Netflix has 206 million subscribers, and many people continue to join the Sea Shepherd movent. Every minute more people support us, it gives us a great boost. This will allow expanding the campaigns to stop illegal fishing in the world.

One of the key messages of SEASPIRICY is not to eat or reduce the consumption of fish. How to scale this in countries where fishing is an important contribution to the economy?


You must understand the moment in which we are in the world arena. We are catching too many fish; the fishing fleet exceeds the capacity of the sea. We are going to reach a point where all the fisheries do not have enough fish to continue the industry, and this will be very fast because the sea will be empty. Fish consumption must be changed. I understand that, in countries like Ecuador, it is difficult to make changes, but there are alternatives; but if we do not change, we will stop eating fish. The question is whether we will do it now or after 30 years when there will be no more fish.


How to move from awareness to action? To change consumer habits. The United States, for example, announced more controls on illegal fishing.


I think consumers will decrease their intake of fish. As Sea Shepherd, we fight illegal industrial fishing directly. In African countries we fight against illegal industrial fishermen, mostly from China, where they kill sharks, dolphins, whales; this is our job. But consumers need to make a change, we are more than 7,000 million people eating too much seafood and that is not sustainable.


In the documentary, China is hardly mentioned... is an absent theme, the effects of the Chinese pirate fleet or the siege of sensitive areas such as the Galapagos Islands are not shown.

We did not produce Seaspiracy, we are part of the documentary, but it is not ours. We gave interviews, we sent them videos. I saw it only a week before the premiere and with no option to comment or ask for changes. When you deal with illegal fishing, we have enough evidence of the atrocities that happen on high seas. We have a fleet of 10 ships constantly sailing at different parts of the globe, so we know what happens, we are the only foundation that does this work. It seems to me that one issue might be the budget, filming in Galapagos is complicated for logistical reasons and the money from the producers of Seaspiracy was limited.


Alex Cornelissen with an illegal shark catch in Galapagos. Photo: Courtesy of Sea Shepherd


Sea Shepherd helped consolidate surveillance of the Galapagos Marine Reserve in 2000 when you did a coordinated action with Galapagos National Park on board the Sirenian patrol boat. Nowadays how do you see the proposal to expand the reserve?

We are fully in favour of expanding marine reserves around the world. A space in the sea where industrial fishing is not allowed is necessary for these to help repopulate adjacent areas. It is very important to have more protected areas, but Galapagos is a special place that requires greater protection.


Sirenian the vessel patrol of Seashepard. In 2001 this vessel contributed to the detention of illegal fishing boats. Photo: Sea Shepherd.


The industrial fishing sector and part of the artisanal sector oppose the expansion of the Galapagos Marine Reserve, even though the world demands to protect 30 per cent of the seas.

Only a fraction of the sea is protected. Only 5% of marine areas around the world are protected, but of those only 0.5% are protected without industrial harvesting. They can fish all over the Pacific, why near Galapagos?, I do not understand. If they fish close to the 40 miles, they also affect the populations within the Reserve because there are migrations; the broader the protection the better. I understand that the fishing fleet wants to catch more, it is their business; but if we do not adopt higher levels of protection, in 30 years there will be no more fish.


In Galapagos, people are concern that the income levels of artisanal fishermen are declining. Besides, illegal activities are associated with poverty. How do you see the future of the islands?

In the Galapagos tourism is very strong, but during a pandemic, everyone is affected. But this situation will pass, hopefully, this year, and we will return to a situation like what happened before 2020. Artisanal fishermen will also regain their economic level. What we saw in Liberia, for example, was how illegal industrial fishermen used their vessels to intimidate artisanal fishermen in their fishing areas, even killing them. In that country, they point out that thanks to Sea Shepherd's campaigns, they can now fish again. This vicious cycle of depleting fish by industry and, thus as consequence fishing families are impoverished is a constant.

It seems that is only bad news under the sun. How to overcome the blockage to bad news in the human brain? Issues such as global warming fail to motivate changes in mobility habits, for example. What to do with overfishing in the world to achieve an improvement?


It is very difficult; it is an issue that worries me too. We are in a pandemic and many people do not understand how serious the situation is. How to convince people to make a change is a complex question for which I do not have the answer. It is the job of the press and organizations like Sea Shepherd to explain the situation. In this sense, Seaspiracy helps many people rethink their fish consumption, it is a small step, but it helps.


The documentary addresses the issue of plastics and the large number of fishing gears found in the sea (about 50% of the Pacific garbage patch). There are company initiatives in Ecuador that use jute planted and other materials. As well as reducing the use of single-use plastics. How effective are these measures, what should we do?

The answer is everything: we must stop using straws and use plastics in general. In the fishing industry too. This helps a lot, but they still have plastic nets. If a ship loses a net, no matter if it is made of jute, plastic, or another material, it still kills marine life for a long time. The difference is that if it is made of jute, it will continue to fish for 30 years and if it is made of plastic for another 500 years. Large numbers of sea turtles die when caught in a fishing net. In the documentary, they talk about straws and they are a tiny fraction of the world's plastic, it is important to get that out of the sea; but when compared to fishing nets, there is no point in focusing on that. For example, in a campaign in Mexico, we removed more than a thousand fishing nets from the sea.


The fishing industry, with some environmental NGOs, has managed to divert attention from the garbage generated by fishing nets to straws. How to beat this marketing?


For this, we also need a global marketing campaign. We have already a lot to do fighting illegal fishing hand in hand with governments. But other organizations should take such action.

To what extent do certifications, such as those of the MSC, contribute to improving the image of the fishing industry? Are they just a placebo to calm our conscience?

Certifications are a business. They charge for the use of a logo. How much do you think we would earn if we put out a logo that says Sea Shepherd approved? Every fisherman would want the logo, it is just a business.

So, what does sustainability imply, the Dolphin safe logo?

For us the Dolphin safe logo is a joke, it has zero value. They may have a person on board who reports the number of dolphins that die in each catch, but there is no control over the number of rays, turtles, sharks, or whales. We have images of a whale and one hundred sharks within a net of a tuna fishing vessel, because “bycatch” means an unwanted species.


Regarding incidental fishing, Ecuadorian tuna vessels point out that "maybe a turtle or a shark falls" in a net but they release them immediately. How can technology help control bycatch?

The first thing I want to say to the tuna vessels is that if that is true, why not install cameras to record everything they are doing, because I do not have confidence in those figures. We only have the word of the captain of the fishing boat.


Tuna vessels use airplanes, radars, sonars, and satellite technology to search for tuna. What technology can be used to monitor fishing and longline fleets?


The first thing is to install cameras to monitor fishing operations. If all ships have cameras that can be accessed and cannot be erased, there we would have evidence of whether what they say is correct or not. We can see the percentage of bycatch.


At what cost? How much does it take to implement this technology?

The cameras cost very little, close to a thousand dollars. The difficult thing is that the fishermen allow the cameras. In Europe, we have a campaign in France to avoid catching dolphins in the Atlantic and all the fishermen refuse to install cameras and increase control on board. They are killing dolphins. I am not saying that Ecuador's fishing fleet is killing dolphins, I just want to know if what they say is true.

Have you carried out studies to fully understand the tuna value chain?

It is not a subject that we are aware of. Our approach is to combat illegal fishing because it is very clear that there is bycatch of 30 to 40 per cent worldwide. Besides, there is a perverse subsidy system that does not allow local fishing fleets to compete. How can Africa's fishing fleet compete with Europe's? One measure is to remove subsidies to these fleets so that the price of seafood is not artificially low.


In which Latin American countries Sea Shepherd operates?

In Peru we started the first patrol with the Ocean Warrior, our flagship vessel, we also work with Peruvian prosecutors to carry out air controls. We have a campaign in Mexico to protect the Vaquita Marina and we are about to start in five more countries, but the names will be published when the agreements are signed. Also, we have the work with the Government of Ecuador in Galapagos, and we hope to return to patrol in the Marine Reserve.


Have you already smoothed out the old problems with the Ecuadorian Navy due to the disagreements at the beginning of the patrols of the Galapagos Marine Reserve?


We have returned to Galapagos several times. We have Sea Shepherd Legal Division, and we are working with prosecutors in Latin America. We hope to return to patrol the sea, we provide the boat, the crew, we pay all the expenses, and the government officials do their work using our equipment. This cooperation helps the environment, the Government and Sea Shepherd; it is a win-win.


What would you say to the young people who see Seaspiracy both in the Galapagos and in other parts of the world, who are increasingly conscientious about conservation?

I can only apologize to young people for the mess my generation made to the world. Those between 18 and 20 years old will have to repair the damage that previous generations did to the planet. I am hopeful that we can change!

Screenshot of the documentary Seaspiracy