Posted: 3rd June 2017 | Written by: Karen Hockney
Meeting MY Ocean Warrior Captain Adam Meyerson - even if it is over a slightly dodgy Skype connection half a world away in Perth, Australia - is something of a privilege.
It’s not every day you get to interview someone whose day job is to hunt down whalers and illegal fishing craft while protecting our precious oceans and marine life. Let’s put it this way…my job suddenly feels quite pedestrian compared to Adam’s daily grind.
As Captain of Sea Shepherd’s newest yacht in the fleet – which was funded by the Postcode Lottery and delivered last September - Adam has just arrived back from Operation Nemesis, Sea Shepherd’s 11th direct action whale defence campaign. The three-month mission against illegal Japanese hunts in the Antarctic Ocean was successful in slowing down the whalers’ progress.
A San Francisco native, Adam grew up racing El Toros and Lasers before heading to Hawaii where he worked on charter boats as a captain and scuba instructor for four years. A two-year stint in The Channel Islands as a harbour patrol officer followed before he was landlocked working as a mechanic near Lake Tahoe.
He was inspired to change direction after watching Paul Watson - who founded Sea Shepherd Conservation Society in 1977 as an international, non-profit marine conservation movement to protect the world’s oceans and marine wildlife - speaking at a sustainability conference.
‘I was fascinated by what he had to say so I applied and got a voluntary position as second mate on the Steve Irwin in 2011,’ he recalls.
Over the last six years, he has worked on every ship in their global fleet, sailing around the world on eight different campaigns.
‘I moved to chief mate on the Brigitte Bardot for Blue Rage, which was my first campaign in the Mediterranean,’ he adds. ‘Then I was chief mate on the Sam Simon for Operation Zero Tolerance anti-whaling campaign which was my first in the Antarctic. I captained the Sam Simon for Operation Relentless and was captain of Brigitte Bardot for the Faroes campaign. One of my favourite campaigns was on the Bob Barker as chief mate for Icefish.’
MY Ocean Warrior & MY Steve Irwin - supplies rendez-vous on Operation Nemesis
Confronting the frontline of illegal fishing and whale hunting is not for the faint-hearted.
Sea Shepherd investigates and records violations of national and international conservation laws, enforcing conservation measures where legal authority exists and inevitably, that means being in the heart of danger on a fairly regular basis.
‘Just going to Antarctica and back in a 54 metre boat is a dangerous thing,’ says Adam with a wry grin. ‘We try to plan ahead with the weather but one of the techniques the whalers used to use on us was to run right for the worst weather. I’ve been on the Sam Simon going through 11 metre seas with 80 or 90 knot winds – it’s good fun!
‘I have been rammed by an oil tanker on the Sam Simon and also by the Japanese whale slaughterhouse Nisshin Maru. There’s video footage of that incident and you can see the flare of the bow is about three or four metres above the top of my bridge. But however close a call it’s been, we have never lost a ship or even had an injury although it has come close at times.’
Captan Adam Meyerson at the helm
Right now, he is more concerned about his 20-year-old son Max, who is working on another Sea Shepherd vessel in Mexico’s Sea of Cortez – dubbed by Jacques Cousteau as ‘the world’s aquarium’ - battling against illegal fishing and the accidental catch of the vaquita porpoise, a highly endangered species endemic to the Gulf of California of which there are just 30 left worldwide.
‘Out there, it’s all run by the cartels, they are threatening to burn the ships down,’ he reveals. ‘The Japanese government is a fearsome adversary but the cartels scare me more!
‘Max was a young guy when I left and I would be gone for months at a time. He didn’t know what he wanted to do so I took him on a transit and then he worked in the engine room at the dry dock. He came on a few trips and started to enjoy it.
‘He’s been on board the Sam for a year. He runs the crane and has learned a good skill. I am very proud of him. I didn’t want to take him on the bridge, it’s a nepotism thing, but he likes working on deck.’
MY Ocean Warrior - small boat training
Ask Adam about the most troubled spot he has ever carried out a mission and he doesn’t hesitate. ‘West Africa breaks your heart. I was off the coast of Senegal on Brigitte Bardot and it’s one trawler after another. There are still tons of fish in the ocean, I don’t know how that can be, and I think it must have been incredible there 10 or 15 years ago.
‘The trawlers are from Europe, Taiwan, China and the US. We were in Cabo Verde, which used to be one of the most sharky places in the world, and there are no sharks left there. They are supposedly fishing for tuna but they set their long lines up to intentionally catch sharks, not tuna. It’s mostly Chinese there. The country is very poor, they have built soccer stadiums and nice things to support the people and then they hope the people look the other way while they take all the fish out of the sea.’
You can understand the scale of Sea Shepherd’s enormous task when you realize that between 15 and 40% of the global catch of fish is illegal. ‘My brother and stepfather were commercial fishermen, and for special occasions we wouldn’t eat roast beef or turkey, we’d have fish, crab or salmon,’ says Adam. ‘But after spending time in West Africa, I can’t eat it, it’s over for me.
‘It’s how they catch them, how they treat their crew, the conditions the fish are kept in and the pollution of the oceans too. My brother no longer fishes, he now teaches autistic children, and my stepfather, before he died, would pull fish in to show the kids and then let them all go. Even my late mother used to donate every month to Sea Shepherd.’
Captain Adam Meyerson watches over small boat crane operations
Given the scale of the problem, Adam has a sobering expectation of the future of marine life. ‘In 15 years’ time, I think we’ll see what happened with the Grand Banks cod in Newfoundland…it’s just gone,’ he states simply. ‘One year they are catching a million tons of cod and the next, it’s disappeared.
‘Cod finally started to come back because they shut that fishery down completely and until they start doing that for Bluefin tuna and regulate fisheries globally, we are going to see these collapses all over. I dread to think what will happen when the shark population dies out – they are so critical at keeping the whole food web and balance going that there will be all sorts of repercussions from that alone.’
Staffed mainly by volunteers, Sea Shepherd Global’s five vessels are run with ecology as a priority. Each ship is vegan, smoking is banned and most are dry with alcohol frowned upon onboard although Adam quips: ‘Those rules apply to the ship; you can have a beer when you get into port! I was vegetarian from the age of 20 to 40 and then started eating meat again but when I went to sea with these guys, I went vegan and it was the best decision I could have made.
‘The last fish I ever caught was sailing back from Hawaii. I caught a Mahi Mahi and was pulling it in when I noticed there were two of these fish, not one. I realised that the other fish was following his friend or his lover or whatever, and that was it for me. I kept thinking of that fish left all by itself!’
Captain Adam Meyerson
So what can the wider public do to become more aware of marine welfare? Adam advises thinking really hard about the provenance of your fish before you buy in a supermarket or order in a restaurant.
‘Just because tuna is dolphin safe, that doesn’t mean it’s tuna safe or shark safe or good for the environment or wasn’t caught by slaves,’ he explains. ‘The Bob Barker team recently arrested a shrimper, it had disabled the turtle excluder devices designed to save turtles, it had no fishing licence and was in the wrong country but it had a little certificate which said ‘sustainably fished shrimp on board.’ They are selling that back in the US and it’s a totally illegal operation.’
Other resounding success stories include Operation Icefish, targeting the last of the toothfish poachers, and Operation Relentless, both of which Adam describes as ‘huge wins.’
‘Relentless was the last anti-whaling campaign before Nemesis,’ he adds. ‘We had the entire Japanese fleet and our entire fleet in one area and it was a major battle, ships were getting rammed for two days. It ended with the Japanese fleet going home with less than 300 whales out of their 1035 quota that year.’
MY Ocean Warrior on Operation Nemesis
Operation Icefish was the search for the Bandit-6 - six outlaw fishing trawlers that continued to exploit loopholes in international law in the shadowlands of Antarctica.
‘We were less than two days in Antarctica when we found the first one,’ recalls Adam. ‘They ran and drifted and tried all kinds of stuff to get away, through ice and storms before just sitting in the water drifting for days on end. After 110 days of chasing them, they finally scuttled their ship. We rescued them and they were arrested. We managed to get evidence off the ship and by the end of the campaign, we had also caught the remaining five other bandit ships we were after. ‘
The penalties can be severe depending on which country they get caught in. Indonesia is notoriously hard on poachers, taking the ships and blowing them up or burning them while other countries allow poachers to bribe their way out.
It costs a whopping €8,000 a day to fund two boats on a mission and although the work Sea Shepherd carries out is now reaching the mainstream thanks to social media and award-winning documentaries like Animal Planet’s Whale Wars and Ocean Warriors, the organization has no official funding and relies solely on donations. Adam is keen to stress how ordinary members of the public can help in the fight to preserve marine and ocean life.
‘People should examine what they are eating and whether they are contributing to the issues with the ocean or if they are helping. Ask yourself, do I know where this fish comes from?
Captain Adam Meyerson & MY Ocean Warrior
‘All our funding apart from the lottery money comes from public donations. People in yachting can self-impose a tax on themselves and sign up for the Direct Action Crew and it will come out of their account on a monthly basis. Donations can also be made through our website. And if people have connections with supply companies, that is also useful to us.
‘One sure-fire way of getting a boat named after you is to give us the money to buy it! Brigitte Bardot donated money to rebuild the engines of the boat named after her and the Bardot Foundation spends money maintaining it every year. The late Hollywood producer Sam Simon, who was behind The Simpsons, gave us the money to buy the Sam Simon. Steve Irwin was going to come on one of our campaigns but he had a run in with the stingray and sadly passed away so they named the ship after him.
‘Most of our funds are spent on food and fuel. There are very few people who are paid on the ships and in the offices, we are mostly crewed by volunteers. It’s insane the amount of money we spend globally on destroying the environment and killing people and you wonder what would happen if just 10% of that was spent making the environment liveable and alleviating people who are starving instead.’
*All images courtesy of Sea Shepherd Global