Holly Hughes spotlights Sea Sheperd, an international NGO and a direct-action ocean conservation movement dedicated to protecting and conserving oceans across the world …
Main Image; The Sea Shepherd team.
Ideally, you will be reading this column at the beach, still damp after your first swim and already contemplating your second. Yet, as summer peaks and many of us spend lots of time in and around the ocean, the reality is that we spend relatively little time thinking about it.
Which is extraordinary, considering Ireland has ten times more sea surface than it does land. There are 220 million acres of marine mass around us and contained within this is a world of diverse and vibrant life, the existence of which is increasingly under threat. This world, in which there are cuttlefish who communicate with one another by changing colour, 24 species of cetacean (aquatic mammals like whales, dolphins and porpoises), and a Coral Garden filled with intricate reef structures that house many creatures, needs our protection. This is where organisations like Sea Shepherd come in. Sea Shepherd is an international NGO and a direct-action ocean conservation movement dedicated to protecting and conserving oceans across the world. With a pirate flag as its logo, Sea Shepherd is like a private navy, willing to go where governments can’t, to document and protest environmental destruction and illegal exploitation (this sometimes gets them into hot water).
In Ireland, Sea Shepherd is focused on raising awareness about marine issues and agitating for better protection of all ocean life. This is no easy task when the problems facing marine ecosystems in Ireland are almost as multifarious as the species within them. Emma Tuite, Country Director of Sea Shepherd Ireland, lists them for me: “Overfishing, bottom trawlers, pollution, plastics that end up in the ocean, habitat destruction from coastal developments, rising sea temperatures, ocean acidification and changing ocean currents associated with climate change. All of these disrupt marine ecosystems, affect the distribution and abundance of species and impact the availability of food sources.” It is the lack of protection that most worries Emma. “When we talk about marine life in Ireland, the first thing that comes to mind is the lack of protection that our marine ecosystems have. We have a small navy presence for the 200 million acres of marine territory – only eight per cent of this is protected (on paper).”
Overfishing and bycatching – the accidental catching of larger animals like dolphins, turtles and sharks – is rife, says Emma. “For instance, in 2021, Irish fishing fleets landed five times the recommended amount of sprat catch. That’s not accounting for non-Irish fishing fleets, never mind the massive trawlers pillaging our ecosystems. The scary truth is, we’re not giving our fish stock time to recuperate. Fisheries have been fishing down the food web, first removing larger, predatory fish and then changing focus to smaller, forage-fish like young mackerel, sardines and sprats. When these juvenile fish or sprats are targeted, this affects the food supply for any remaining larger fish, devastatingly affecting the recovery of species and ultimately unbalancing the entire marine ecosystem.”
Bycatching is equally detrimental. “These animals are often dead by the time they reach the deck and are simply discarded over the side of the fishing boat,” Emma tells me. Then there’s the annihilating impact of fish farms on marine ecosystems. “Fish farms are large pens that are often overcrowded with fish, making them susceptible to disease and infestations of sea lice,” says Emma. “Not only that but the ecosystems around these pens are nicknamed ‘dead zones’ as nothing can grow or live around them.”
Sea shepherd is like a private navy, willing to go where governments can’t, to document environmental destruction.
Sea Shepherd Ireland is currently working on several campaigns to address these issues. One is the Ghost Network Campaign which aims to address accidental bycatching caused by the 640,000 tonnes of fishing gear that is lost, abandoned or discarded in the ocean every year. “We’re collaborating with companies that can upcycle this fishing gear into items such as bracelets, bags, and coats.” Collection buckets are being created at Irish ports so that fisheries can safely dispose of unwanted nets that can go on to enjoy a new lease of life.
Speaking of pollution, the Marine Debris Campaign is a tangible way you can get involved with Sea Shepherd. “We’re currently recruiting volunteers for this,” Emma tells me. “Last year, we cleaned 18 beaches and collected 1,100kg of waste. This year, the focus isn’t just on coastal areas; we also want to go inland too. Clean-ups need to happen all over Ireland because all drains lead to the ocean.”
While the issues Emma and her team are trying to combat can feel vast and overwhelming, she reassures me that the individual solutions we can implement are simple. “It’s as straightforward as shopping carefully and locally,” Emma says. “If you like eating fish, ensure you know where the fish comes from. You don’t just reduce your carbon footprint when you buy local, you also support local fisheries that are really struggling right now because large, factory-size ships are taking a lot of the quotas and destroying local fishing communities.” Emma also recommends incorporating vegan or vegetarian meals into your weekly diet.
Stay informed. “Don’t be blindsided by greenwashing: companies do put misleading safety labels on their products,” says Emma. “Demand more information from the Irish Food Safety authority on farmed fish. In Spain, for example, the government openly publishes posters warning of the dangers of consuming farmed fish.” Advocating for similar practices in Ireland will help more people make informed choices when it comes to what they eat and this, in turn, can help protect all forms of marine life.
With a base of just 20 volunteers in Ireland, Sea Shepherd is always looking for new recruits and donors. “You can volunteer whatever time you have to help us get the word out about the work we do, actively research the needs of our ocean and sea community or organise a clean-up of a community space. This can be a beach, river, lake or even the road beside your house. Every positive action we take positively impacts marine life.” This is a sentiment I wholeheartedly embrace, one that makes fighting for a protected planet easier and full of hope. I hope you think of it – and of Sea Shepherd – when shopping in your local fishmongers or hurling yourself off the Forty Foot after a sticky, city day. Because, how lucky are we to have this ocean as our neighbour? How blessed are we to get to enjoy and protect it? @holly_hughes_words