Gary Stokes is not a man to shy away from ambitious goals. The director of Sea Shepherd Asia has set himself a target of ridding Hong Kong of the shark fin trade.
It’s a tall order but as someone who played a pivotal role in one of Sea Shepherd’s most successful shark defence campaigns in their 40-year history, if anyone can achieve this, Gary can.
Within a few minutes of chatting to Gary, who has been based in Hong Kong since 1990, his passion for conservation and marine protection is evident. His two main focuses are fighting against the shark and shark fin trade and raising awareness of ocean plastic pollution. ‘If I’m not up to my knees in shark fins, I’m up to my knees in plastic trash,’ he says wryly.
And having just returned myself from a trip around South East Asia, where I saw first hand the terrible impact plastic pollution is having on the region’s beaches and coastline, it’s very clear that it will take someone with great vision to reverse the horrifying destruction being wreaked by mankind.
‘Plastic pollution is a problem which has worsened significantly in recent years,’ he adds. ‘There are insane amounts of debris on the beaches here. Hong Kong is at the entrance of the Pearl River Delta, and there are 420 million people living up river. Their trash comes downstream which is why our beaches here are some of the worst in the world.
Diving from the Ocean Warrior on campaign in Timor Leste, summer 2017.
‘Much of the waste is polystyrene packing because the fruit and vegetable and fish suppliers use big lightweight polystyrene boxes which get discarded and broken down over and over until they are just tiny beads ingested by marine life. It also gets blasted back by the sea into the undergrowth and there are layers of trash which have built up over the years.
‘It’s great that people take part in beach clean ups and question how household rubbish ends up on the beach but if the bath is overflowing do you get a mop or turn the tap off? You turn the tap off first. A lot of these beach clean ups are just mopping the floor.
‘The appetite for plastics is out of control but I hope we can start changing our attitudes to packaging and our behaviour and get single use plastic out of our lives. Plastic is a really good material if you want something to last a long time but the insanity is in it being used for 20 minutes or less for things like water bottles. We have to change the mind set of throwaway convenience we have got into. I think our kids and their kids will be cleaning up the planet for the next few generations.
‘Fortunately there is greater awareness of the problem now. A massive wake up call has just occurred in the last six months. Even the Queen has just banned plastic bottles from all royal residences. We are seeing towns banning plastic straws and Taiwan wants to ban them country wide.
‘The movie Plastic Ocean, which I was in along with David Attenborough, is winning awards, while Blue Planet and Sky’s Ocean Rescue are also bringing the issue to the mainstream. It’s very positive to see.’
Making a stand, however small, is the starting point and Gary did this with his 9-year-old son Jack to protest against the use of plastic food wrapping in his local supermarket.
‘We made a video called Trash the Checkout where we unpacked our fruit and veg at the checkout and left the plastic there to highlight the excessive amount of unnecessary plastic packaging used in supermarkets. We politely explained to the store manager that this was all un-needed and would just go to landfill. This little video ended up going viral around the world with hundreds of people doing it at their own supermarkets. The younger generation are particularly clued up, it’s getting them to put pressure on their parents that will make the difference.
‘I give talks at schools on ocean conservation and the artwork I see on the walls about the dangers of palm oil and plastics is really encouraging yet I find it sad that our kids already have to deal with these issues. My biggest fears growing up were about World War 3 breaking out and nuclear weapons, I’m not sure what is more scary.’
The shark and shark fin trade is another passion project for Gary. Living in Hong Kong and travelling across the city by tram made him aware of how big the dried seafood trade is and spotting the staggering amount of shark fin products for sale made him want to get involved. He started a hashtag #globalsharkcrisis to increase awareness across social media platforms.
A shark fin worker dries shark fins on the street in Hong Kong
‘Finning is a pretty barbaric practise – fishermen cut off the fin and chuck the shark’s body back overboard, sometimes alive, sometimes dead. The practice established when long line tuna boats got a shark on their hooks and as they didn’t want to fill the boat with dead sharks, which they deemed worthless, they would cut off and keep the fins which were worth something, and discard the rest.
‘Footage of this got out, and as the shark fin industry is savvy, it knew there would be an outcry and fins would be hard to come by so they created other markets around the world to sell the rest of the body. There is now a meat industry – Brazil being one of the largest, Central America eats a lot as ceviche and the UK used to have rock salmon in fish and chip shops, which was actually spiny dog fish shark. In Australia fish & chips is often labelled as flake, which is another name used as camouflage for “shark and chips”.
‘They also started using the cartilage to make pills containing chondroitin sulphate which are used to relieve rheumatoid arthritis and was even heralded as an anti-cancer treatment which is baloney but people bought into it.
‘Now, as a result of the other markets that exist, fisherman will bring the whole shark to shore as it is worth money and each industry is blaming the other. I would like the NGOs to stop talking about shark fins and start talking about sharks as a whole.’
With shark traditionally thought of as the dish of emperors, representing wealth and success in China, Gary faces an uphill task to undo the cultural myths surrounding the meat as a delicacy and the fin as a magical remedy. It doesn’t help that media and popular culture has demonised sharks as aggressive predators through movies like Jaws, The Shallows and Open Water.
While official figures quote in excess of 100 million shark killings annually worldwide, Gary says a truer estimate is at least 200 million. ‘There are 73 million killed for shark fin soup alone,’ he reveals. ‘I regularly watch 40 ft containers arriving full of sharks, in shipments which are deliberately mislabelled so that carriers like Maersk, Virgin and Cathay Pacific, which have categorically banned the transportation of shark products, are tricked into believing they are carrying dried seafood.
‘We are working alongside governments to impose stricter laws,’ says Gary. ‘I’ve had meetings with Hong Kong customs, and sat at the same table with representatives from huge shipping lines like Maersk. Virgin has been on board and Sir Richard Branson is very supportive. An air shipment of shark fin was flown on Virgin Australia and Cathay Pacific and when I showed the photographs to Richard, he said, let’s release this publicly to clampdown on it through the authorities.’
Gary Stokes identifying shark species to PNTL Officer Credit: Jax Oliver/Sea Shepherd
Gary’s marine career began when he joined the Royal Navy as an artificer (electrical engineer). He left to travel to Hong Kong where he fell in love with the island. A talented photographer who has had his work published in Marie Claire, the Daily Telegraph, The Times and Tatler amongst others, it was his stunning underwater images of Blue Fin tuna in Malta just before they were nominated for listing as a protected species which first brought him to the attention of Sea Shepherd.
‘Sea Shepherd saw my pictures and asked if I would be interested in donating them, which I did for the Blue Rage campaign in the Mediterranean. They then asked me to go down to Antarctica aboard the Bob Barker on the anti-whaling campaign and being in the middle of the most pristine wilderness was gorgeous.
‘The Japanese whalers were also there and it was just us trying to stop them. To be on a ship with 35 other likeminded people who all felt the same was empowering. I was smitten. We saved 863 whales on Operation No Compromise by chasing the whalers all the way to Chile before they quit six weeks early and went home to Japan, arriving in Japan just days after the devastating tsunami.
‘The following year, some of the tsunami donation funds were awarded to the whalers to continue to go and kill whales. That was galling for us but it was justified by saying that whaler’s families were from areas affected by the tsunami. Being on the Bob Barker day after day gave my life meaning and I knew then it was what I wanted to do.
‘I always loved the navy so it’s no surprise to me that I ended up in Neptune’s navy, working with Sea Shepherd and Captain Paul Watson.’
With governments in Gabon, Liberia and Tanzania actively seeking out partnerships with Sea Shepherd to work together to enforce marine law and stamp out illegal hunting and fishing practises, Gary says the movement has long since shrugged off its image as a maverick organisation.
‘Things needed to evolve and change and working with governments and law enforcement agencies means we get a lot more done. We bring in the ship and crew and they put law enforcement teams onboard; we don’t have a legal right to arrest the bad guys so by taking these guys on board we have that power. We have had three years working together in West Africa and it has been a great success.’
Gary’s campaign on Ocean Warrior last autumn in Timor Leste (East Timor) proved to be among Sea Shepherd’s most victorious to date, resulting in the impounding of a fleet responsible for tens of thousands of shark killings. What is all the more astonishing is that it came off the back of footage from one concerned observer and morphed from a reconnaissance mission into a full scale sting.
‘I received footage from a female diver of a fleet of 15 industrial fishing boats which had a licence to fish but were simply targeting just sharks including protected hammerheads. This diver loves sharks and was so shocked that she filmed the fleet offloading sharks onto a mother ship with a drone.
‘I had identified the huge refrigerated cargo mother ship from the earlier drone footage and tracked its route back up to China before heading across the Pacific towards the Galapagos Islands where it stopped to rendezvous with other fishing boats. These fishing boats from the same company were meeting to offload their catch and receive replenishments of food and fuel so they could stay out on the high seas and continue hunting.
‘I asked Sea Shepherd CEO Captain Alex Cornelissen, who used to work in the Galapagos, to put the word out about the ship. Two days later, it was arrested in the national park of Galapagos with 300 tonnes of shark onboard. The Ecuadoreans arrested and imprisoned the crew and impounded the ship.
Small boat crew passing the Fu Yuan Yu 836 Illegal Driftnet boat Credit: Jake Parker/Sea Shepherd
‘With the mothership in custody, the 15 boats were likely still hunting sharks so we took the Ocean Warrior to Timor Leste last September after an alarm call from the Nobel Peace Prize winner and former President and Prime Minister of East Timor, Dr Jose Ramos-Horta, asking for help. We secretly set off for a month to hunt down and find out what the fleet was up to in Timorese waters.
We spent two weeks looking for the fleet, finally finding them on my birthday, which was the best present of all! We documented them hauling in shark after shark and then headed to Dili and shared this footage with the Timorese police. They were keen to take action but due to lack of resources had no vessels capable, so we took their officers aboard the Ocean Warrior.
‘We raided the fleet at 6am the following morning with armed police while they were at anchor and on inspecting the holds, each boat had between 10 – 15,000 sharks. The PNTL (Policia Nationale Timor Leste) then arrested all 15 vessels. The campaign had far exceeded any of our expectations, we were only planning to have a look, it was a reconnaissance mission and our goal was to highlight the problem to the Timorese so they wouldn’t renew their fishing licences. The reaction from the Timorese police was incredible and encouraging.
‘The vessels are still impounded now, which means six months that they haven’t been able to fish. It’s right up there with the some of the most successful missions in the 40 years of Sea Shepherd. We also found three Chinese vessels which were drift-netting, putting out 20km of drift net a night each, when the legal limit is 2.5km. These vessels have also been reported to the relevant regional authorities and we await action to be taken. It was a great month’s work!’
Photo Credit: Tara Lambourne/Sea Shepherd
Yachting has a pivotal role to play in helping Sea Shepherd expose such barbaric practises. Gary advocates the reporting back method as the best way of having eyes and ears across the world’s oceans.
‘Reporting back is the way forward,’ he says. ‘If you are on the high seas in a sail boat and you see illegal activity, we don’t expect you to go and risk your life confronting these people but by all means document where the vessels are, their names and anything else you can share as every single piece of evidence is vital.
‘The worldwide yachting community could help to be our eyes and ears, giving us the first small piece of evidence from which to start an investigation. That’s how the East Timor mission was accomplished. You can contact the local Sea Shepherd office for that country or Sea Shepherd Global, and be safe in the knowledge that everything is kept anonymous.’
Back to Gary’s promise to rid Hong Kong of the shark fin trade. Just how close is he to achieving this particular goal?
‘Well, consumption in Hong Kong has gone down because a lot of young Chinese are not buying it,’ he adds. ‘More than 50% of the world’s shark fins go through Hong Kong so we’re still a long way off from stamping it out completely, but I know where all the major retailers and warehouses that hold it are, so we just keep exposing and educating.
‘Some shark populations are down to their last 5%. We have annihilated sharks in the last 50 or 60 years so it’s time to reverse that and protect them better.’
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*All images courtesy of Gary Stokes and Sea Shepherd Global.