Commentary

Patrolling the Mediterranean for Operation Siso 2019

Friday, Jul 19, 2019

Learn about the day-to-day actions onboard the M/Y Sam Simon for Operation Siso, Sea Shepherd's campaign in partnership with Italian authorities to stop illegal fishing in the Medterranean Sea. Commentary by campaign leader and Director of Sea Shepherd Italy, Andrea Morello.

The M/Y Sam Simon docked at Ustica Island, Italy. Photo by Thomas Le Coz/Sea Shepherd.

Patrolling began in June in two areas of the southern part of the Tyrrhenian Sea known as Alpha and Bravo, and ended in the areas known as Charlie and Delta. The investigative activity at sea and on shore led to organizing and carrying out checks on motorized fishing boats off the coast of Bagnara Calabra. This area is sadly known in history for the use of “Spadara”* driftnets for swordfishing. Once these fishing nets were detected, the Guardia di Finanza (Italy's Customs Police) sent their patrol boats to join Sea Shepherd’s fast RIBs, leading to a full inspection of two boats. One of the two vessels tried to get rid of its illegal driftnet to hide evidence of a dead swordfish it had trapped and killed in terrible agony by suffocation. Swordfish fishing with driftnets is banned, and the crew were unable to hide their crime before the Guardia di Finanza officers caught them.

Following the course north from the Stromboli volcano, on June 10th we found the well-known tuna purse seine fisheries.* Tuna fishing is regulated by ICCAT (International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas), which determines quotas, fishing periods, and authorized boats. Sea Shepherd’s fast RIB “Thunder” was launched and the drone was deployed. We documented the presence of tuna fish in the cages that were being towed by tug-boats toward the “fattening pens”. There, after the journey where they are kept alive but without food, they will be fed pilchards coming from Northern Europe. In November they will be killed and shipped to Japan. 

Once the legality of this fishing operation was confirmed through ICCAT and the Italian Coast Guard, whose partnership has been extremely valuable for Sea Shepherd’s mission, we maintained our course North. Unfortunately, this industry is leading tuna to extinction: the fewer tuna fish in the sea, the higher the profits of the businesses that own the tuna farms and the set quota rights. In Northern Africa, ICCAT rules often don’t apply, or their enforcement isn’t verified. Illegal fishing also involves Bluefin Tuna: in 2010 we came to the Mediterranean with the vessel Steve Irwin to free 800 Bluefin Tuna that had been illegally caught in cages outside the fishing season. This is why Bluefin Tuna fishing has become an unsustainable industrial fishing practice that Sea Shepherd opposes. We are pirates of compassion fighting against the real pirates: the profit pirates.

When the night fell we stumbled upon an unreported buoy that bore no identification signs. Besides constituting a danger for navigation, the buoys were connected by the main line of a huge, 10-mile-long longline. After reporting it to the authorities, and after the Coast Guard gave us the authorization to remove it, we monitored it all night long. At dawn, the last check led to the discovery that it was legal, therefore we cancelled the retrieval.

At 10:30am on June 11th we got a call from the Coast Guard in Salina concerning the presence of an illegal swordfishing ghostnet that had probably been cut loose by poachers in the past few nights. At 2pm we located the net and intervened immediately with a RIB and a diver to hoist the net on board with our crane. This kind of net, traditionally called “Spadara”, or “wall of death”, has been banned by the UN and by the UE for almost 20 years because it has been responsible for the deaths of tens of thousands of marine mammals and wildlife  including whales, dolphins and turtles. Once the net was on board, we discovered that it had killed five large swordfish and of one shark -- possibly a blue shark -- which had been trapped by the deadly mesh. 

As dawn was breaking on June 28th, during the 4th week of Operation SISO 2019, the M/Y Sam Simon found the campaign target: an illegal “spadara” driftnet in the Bravo area. We immediately got in touch with the Milazzo operative section of the Coast Guard, who recorded the location of the illegal net and its type. The whole day was then spent preparing to hoist the net onboard and confiscate it. Once the Thunder RIB was launched, we documented that the net had several fish in its deadly mesh. At 4pm a class 200 Coast Guard boat reached the location, followed by a class 404 boat which started hoisting the illegal net, aided by the Sam Simon and the Thunder. Just when the victim count had reached 39 fish, including 32 tuna, five swordfish, one Mediterranean spearfish and one blue shark, an unexpected rescue began: a second blue shark, almost 3 meters long, began to show signs that he was alive. He was untangled from the net and, once in the sea, began breathing and swam free in his turquoise sea.

On June 30th the Sam Simon set her course toward Siracusa for a day of docking. There, during that same night, another Sea Shepherd operation was taking place in Southern Sicily: Operation Siracusa. Twenty volunteers coming from six different countries were patrolling the coast of the Plemmirio Marine Reserve with watchful eyes defending the sea to protect groupers and sea urchins from poachers. As dawn was breaking, our volunteers spotted the first few violations.

Three fishermen carrying fishing poles entered the fishing zones and split up, going to two different locations. Two of them headed to the bay off Ognina, while the third got to the rocks located in front of the Siracusa port. The Municipal Police were notified and, in a matter of minutes, they began checking. The fishermen turned out to be already known to the law enforcement authorities, as they had been reported and fined in the past few months for fishing without a valid permit.

Less than one hour later, two youngsters on a motor scooter entered the Marine Reserve, carrying knives and a large, yellow plastic net, the kind that is usually used to gather shellfish. They headed immediately to the rocks facing Siracusa and began gathering shellfish, carefully checking the area and pausing often to observe the access points to the sea. Law enforcement authorities were alerted and, just as in the previous situation, they intervened within a few minutes and approached the two youngsters to identify them. Because they didn’t have any ID, they were escorted to the police station. Thanks to the checks, the two poachers were identified and each of them was fined 200 Euro for fishing shellfish with banned equipment.

Meanwhile, the Sea Shepherd volunteers kept patrolling the area.They found wetsuits and diving equipments that the two youngsters had cast aside. This equipment would have been used for fishing sea urchins in the inshore areas, an activity that is illegal in this stretch of the sea. This assumption was corroborated when the two youngsters came back from the police station and, under the watchful but unobtrusive eyes of the volunteers, they were seen as they retrieved the equipment, loaded it on the motor scooter, and then left. 

On the same day, three freedivers armed with spearguns were spotted preparing their equipment before getting into the water. The Port Authority had been contacted about the divers’ boat that was unlawfully anchored within the Marine Reserve, and immediately sent a support vessel to intercept the free divers. Once they understood the danger they were in, they had no choice but to get rid of the spearguns, dumping them in the sea, before returning to the coast, where the Municipal Police intervened. The three poachers, once they had been identified, turned out to be fishermen from Catania. They were ordered to cease any activity that had to do with the sea, but the fact that they were not caught in flagrante delicto made it impossible for the authorities to draft a report against the fishermen. However, they are now known to the law enforcement authorities.

For Sea Shepherd, saving lives is the main mission of every campaign. We measure our success by the number of lives we save. Sharks have been inhabiting our planet for 450 million years, influencing every other life form known today. Seeing such a perfectly shaped, sinuous shark swimming away free in the endless blue sea made our volunteers even more determined to patrol day and night, and to close down any destructive activities against our oceans. As our founder, Captain Paul Watson, says: If the Oceans die, we die.

Operation SISO 2019 showed the whole world that illegal driftnets are still used in the most overexploited seas of the world, even if this kind of illegal fishing is on the decline. Sea Shepherd shall come back to the Mediterranean with Neptune's Navy to enforce laws in partnership with the authorities, and to restore justice, flying the Jolly Roger in any place where marine life is threatened, thanks to our volunteers' passion, our captains' determination and our donors' crucial support.

Actions that Make a Difference

Sea Shepherd is exactly this: action making a difference. Every day, as the dawn lights up the blue horizon, the 27 Ocean Warriors on board the M/V Sam Simon start patrolling the Mediterranean for the sea and the lives dwelling in it. Thousands of tons of plastic are discarded into the sea every year, billions of fish are fished illegally and sold on the global markets, and cetaceans are constantly killed by illegal driftnets. These are just a few of the countless crimes that humankind perpetrates against a sea that is now in serious danger, but that is ready to be fully alive again if it is protected.

And today, as Enzo Maiorca used to tell us, we “Set the Sam Simon's bow toward the sea” to defend, conserve and protect it, in a partnership with authorities and governments. We are ever determined to protect the future of our own species without any compromise, fighting for survival, fighting against extinction.

Click here to learn more about Operation Siso

Watch the campaign wrap video (below): 

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