When Rob Read first volunteered with Sea Shepherd a decade ago, he never dreamed that one day he would head up the UK arm of the marine conservation organization.
It was after watching an episode of Yorkshire Television’s Defenders of Wildlife series that Rob - an environmental scientist and university lecturer and now Sea Shepherd UK’s Chief Operating Officer - decided he wanted to get involved.
‘I was 19, and was at university when I watched an episode called Ocean Warrior, with this charismatic figure, Paul Watson, aboard a black painted ship confronting illegal fishing activities,’ he recalls. ‘It wasn’t the typical banner holding but confronting vessels with direct action.
‘That programme stuck in my memory while I studied environmental science and later worked for 13 years at a UK university. When SSUK started 11 years ago, I was one of the first people to get involved.’
Rob delivering a talk to students at Bangor University.
Rob’s volunteer duties saw him travelling to events all over the UK, attending International Whaling Commission meetings and spending all his spare time working with SSUK alongside his day job. As universities became more money orientated and in Rob’s words ‘the soul was being lost’, he decided to direct all his attention towards saving the marine environment, jumping ship just as his first child was born. ‘It was a baptism of fire,’ he recalls cheerfully, ‘and we have been building on it ever since.’
Rob worked his way up to area co-ordinator, then regional co-ordinator before becoming vice chairman of the board and applying to run Sea Shepherd UK full time. ‘Everyone thought that was a risky career choice!’ he laughs. You can perhaps see why, for although the organization has divisions in Australia, the US, France, Germany, Italy and the UK, there are only four permanent offices and around 30 paid employees worldwide, far less than some smaller organisations have in the UK alone.
‘There are only two employees in the UK and we both work from home. We have no marketing or advertising departments but the upside is our donors know exactly where their money is going. With 11 significant sized Sea Shepherd vessels on the ocean and around 20 fast patrol boats, people tend to assume we are a huge organization with large offices - yet we are probably the largest marine conservation group you have never heard of!’
Rob preparing to inspect salmon nets along the Scottish coast
However, as the world sits up and finally starts taking notice of the burgeoning threats to marine wildlife and our oceans, this is surely set to change.
Rob and his fellow volunteer and events officer, Rob Douglas, oversee 25 senior volunteers who help manage 260 regular volunteers. They attend around 160 events a year to help promote Sea Shepherd’s work and attract new volunteers and donors.
‘I take care of day to day management, doing the charity’s accounts and financial figures, liaising with major donors, planning campaign actions, working with Sea Shepherd Global, banking, answering the phone and emails (I have six accounts) as well as getting involved in global campaigns with other Sea Shepherd groups,’ he explains.
‘I’m the national coordinator and work with other global directors/coordinators to make decisions on campaigns. Weekends off don’t really exist, but fortunately my partner is also involved with Sea Shepherd UK so she understands!’
SSUK is particularly active in Scottish waters and when you consider that historically it had concentrated on fundraising and hadn’t launched its own campaign until 2013, the charity has enjoyed astonishing success over the last four years.
On patrol in Aberdeenshire - Sea Defence Campaign
‘There are more issues to deal with up here,’ says Rob, who is based just outside Glasgow. ‘Our first campaign, the Seal Defence Campaign, ran for two years and involved 60 volunteers from 11 countries. Its aim was to save seals from being shot by Scottish wild salmon netsmen, and by one family company in particular, the Scottish Wild Salmon Company of which just four family members were solely responsible for killing almost a third of the seals in Scotland.
‘That amounted to well over 200 seals a year according to their official figures, but in reality it was probably much higher. The reports reaching Sea Shepherd UK were that this company and its employees were quite aggressive including threatening locals and anyone who challenged them, so they were a perfect group for Sea Shepherd UK to go up against.’
Rob explains the methodology behind the campaign, which started at Gardenstown in Banffshire, one of the company’s three main netting stations. ‘There were very heated confrontations between us until they said they wouldn’t be shooting any more seals at that location that season. That was a very quick success.
‘We dragged an old SSUK inflatable boat out of storage from Southampton to Scotland and brought in a second boat so we could follow the fishermen, who at that time were still carrying guns in their boats around the coastline. The salmon netting season runs from May to August and we were there out of nowhere in under two weeks, having gone from not running any boat operations in the UK since the 1980s when a previous Sea Shepherd group based in Glasgow ran a seal defence campaign in the Orkney Islands.
‘We had 30 volunteers before spreading out into patrols up to Orkney, the Hebrides, and Shetland. For two years, there were many confrontations and we were filming seals being shot when we weren’t physically able to stop it, and putting that footage out to the national press. I inadvertently filmed the same company killing protected wild sea birds without even realising it from half a mile away, which sparked a separate campaign within the seal campaign which generated reports to the police and cooperation with an SSPCA investigation.’
While the mass shooting of seals was becoming embarrassing for the Scottish government – they are often featured in ad campaigns to encourage tourists to visit Scotland – it didn’t stop Marine Scotland issuing permits for fish farms, fishermen and estates to shoot seals. ‘A huge hypocrisy, kept very quiet,’ is how Rob describes it.
‘The Scottish Wild Salmon Company started buying up hereditary coastal fishing rights in 2011 and launched what seemed to be a one family crusade to eliminate seals from the Scottish coast,’ reveals Rob. ‘Locals were telling us that many more seals were being washed up with bullet holes than the company was admitting to shooting in the figures they submitted to Marine Scotland.
News of Sea Shepherd's campaign made a splash in national newspapers, increasing awareness and support.
‘One of the seals our crew found shot near Thurso had been tagged, and we found out that they had shot a rescued, rehabilitated and released seal called ‘Kuiper’ as a result of a permit issued by the Scottish government. We issued the first clear footage of Scottish fishermen shooting seals which piled on the national media pressure and it was the beginning of the end for the company and, as it turns out, the entire Scottish wild salmon fishing industry.
‘The Scottish government issued a three-year suspension on all wild salmon netting rights in Scotland, which put them out of that business. There hasn’t been any coastal netting of salmon for two years and therefore no seal shooting by this or any other coastal salmon netting company in Scotland. Technically, they could get the permits back to catch wild salmon in a years’ time but we are hopeful that the suspension will become a permanent ban.
‘We saved hundreds of seals by taking on the most notorious company first rather than easier targets and word of the success of our campaign fed back to many other companies. The numbers shot by fish farms in Scotland has also dropped dramatically since that campaign, as has the number of seals shot off the Northumbrian coast where we have also occasionally patrolled’.
In the wake of that success, Sea Shepherd UK has run a series of covert operations in the Shetland Islands as part of their campaign to expose dolphin killing in the Faroe Islands and managed the 2016/17 Cove Guardians campaign in Japan, with further campaigns planned for 2018.
Plastic pollution is another topic on which Sea Shepherd UK is active and with David Attenborough’s recent BBC series Blue Planet topping the ratings, the message on marine conservation is finally going mainstream.
‘It’s sad that it takes David Attenborough to say what others have been saying for a long time before people will listen,’ says Rob. ‘It is claimed that 95% of plastics in the ocean are coming out of just 10 rivers in the world – eight in Asia and two in Africa. We need to reach out and inspire people all over the world.’
Several initiatives are currently in operation including an imminent ghost net retrieval campaign in which divers retrieve lost fishing gear from around the UK coastline and off wreck sites, to prevent fish being caught by fishing industry debris often decades old. Beach cleans are also a simple but effective way of making a positive impact on marine species and the coastal environment.
‘We are fortunate that most UK beaches are relatively clean,’ Rob adds. ‘Gary Stokes, Director of Sea Shepherd Asia, has done great work exposing the plastic pollution ending up on Hong Kong’s beaches while Sea Shepherd entities around the world have been carrying out beach and underwater cleans as part of our global marine debris campaign. Sea Shepherd Uruguay recently removed 60 tonnes of plastic and debris from one beach which was literally feet deep in marine litter.’
As the yachting industry itself looks to embrace greener practises, protecting the marine environment was a hot topic among business leaders at the annual meeting of Italian Yacht Masters in Monaco in October, and again at METSTRADE in Amsterdam in November. I put it to Rob that perhaps the time is right for conservationists to get superyachts up to speed on how to do better rather than simply shaming the industry about past bad practises.
‘My experience is that the sailing community tends to be more environmentally aware and in tune with the marine environment and is more appreciative of it than the motor yachting community,’ says Rob.
Rob on boat patrol and out on the road giving talks
‘We have helped to fund education of boat users on the south coast about harassing whales and dolphins, some of which are killed by boats chasing them. We want to get involved with yachting groups around the UK to improve their awareness of the impact they have on the environment.
‘We also need them to be our eyes. Yacht users generally know what is going on, they spot rubbish dumped in remote bays that only boat owners come across. Sea Shepherd UK wants to hear from them because we might be able to take action ourselves – or persuade local authorities to step up and commit resources to resolving these issues.
‘If you see a boat dumping something, investigate what went over the side, video it with a time and a location and let us know, anonymously if you wish. We have a reward of £7,500 for information or evidence which results in prosecutions for damaging protected UK marine wildlife or habitats.
‘What we are starting to see is UK fishermen reporting other fishermen for allegedly illegal practises. No-one knows more than fishermen about what is really going on around our coastline.
‘We are engaged in a battle that we can potentially win, because with the help of boat users, responsible fishermen and tourists, as well as our dedicated volunteers and four fast RHIBs, together we can watch over the UK’s coastline - as long as everyone actually reports and photographs what they see!
‘Sea Shepherd will continue to push the limits to defend marine wildlife – and anyone can get involved’.
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