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Animal Activists Are Trying to Save the World's Fish from the Mafia

The Mafia is killing endangered sea creatures worth millions of dollars at wholesale markets in Tokyo. Activists, from a group known as the Black Fish, are using drones to catch the Mafia's illegal practices and deliver justice.

The Black Fish’s founder Wietse van der Werf. Photo by Chris Grodotzki.

On a warm night in July 2012, off the island of Ugljan in the Croatian Adriatic, two activists slipped into the water near a line of huge fish farms. Security boats patrolled the perimeter of the vast circular nets, as guards stationed on a nearby hill kept watch through the night. And for good reason: the thousands of bluefin tuna in the farms, destined for the tables of Japanese sushi restaurants, are worth millions. Individual fish routinely sell for more than $1,500 at wholesale markets in Tokyo and closer to home. The Croatian tuna had been caught as juveniles under a loophole in international law, and were being “fattened up” before heading to market.


Wearing tactical diving gear, the divers arrived at the first net, slicing three-quarters of its length and sending bluefin streaming out. The divers swam to another net, repeating the process, and then headed home. The security teams circling above were none the wiser until the following day. The activists, from a group known as the Black Fish, were long gone. The raid was similar to a previous attack in September 2010, when Black Fish divers freed dolphins from holding pens near Taiji, Japan.

A sailor prepares to head out to sea with five 2.5-kilometer nets in ant'Agata di Militello, Sicily; 2.5 kilometers is the legal limit, but Mediterranean fishermen often join multiple nets of this size together to get around the law. Photo by Chris Grodotzki Since the action in Japan and Croatia, the group has turned its sights on drift nets—long, fine nets suspended from buoys, typically across fish migration paths. Banned in international waters since 1992, the longest nets, which can stretch 50 miles behind industrial-sized fishing vessels, are associated with almost indiscriminate killing of marine life. Their mesh size can be as little as ten centimeters, meaning young fish are caught before they can reproduce. Sea turtles, dolphins, and sharks also fall prey, and since they’re illegal to catch, they’re returned, often mortally wounded, to the ocean.

In spite of the ban put in place at the urging of the UN, the practice continues. From the Indian Ocean to the North Pacific, illegal drift nets are still in use, and no proper authority exists to monitor their use or bring prosecutions. In the Mediterranean, their use is often controlled by various mobs, according to the Black Fish’s founder Wietse van der Werf: “Organized crime and corruption is a big part of why drift netting carries on in the Mediterranean. The Calabrian Mafia is known to run the biggest operation in Europe, right alongside the biggest cocaine-running operation—they’re pretty much one and the same.”


And they’re hard to catch, said Wietse. When EU inspectors roll around, corrupt captains will take their nets to pieces, head to sea, or “re-flag” their boats, dodging European rules by hoisting a North African flag. A few years ago, Italian fishermen were given millions to hand over their drift nets and invest in more “sustainable” gear—they immediately spent the cash on bigger, badder drift nets. These were either stored in non-EU countries or overlooked by corrupt Italian officials (paid off, ironically, using the money set aside for newer, less damaging nets).

A member of the Black Fish toying around with a quadcopter supplied by ShadowView. Photo by Chris Grodotzki

So illegal fishermen have to be caught actually using the nets in order to be brought to justice. Which is why the Black Fish have begun to invest in drones. With the help of ShadowView, a nonprofit which provides charities and NGOs with unmanned helicopters and planes, the group has begun monitoring ports for signs of illegal kit. They’ve just finished a series of “port inspections” in Albania and Italy, using cameras mounted on small “quadcoptor” drones to gather evidence from above.

Posing as beach-towelled vacationers, Wietse and his undercover crews normally go unnoticed until their little robot is buzzing above a bunch of pissed off fishermen. In other spots, like Libya and Tunisia, drones tend not to go down so well, so the Black Fish use hidden cameras and a tourists’ blank expression to wander around ports with impunity. The group is still analyzing their videos and pictures from this year, but have already spotted several “blacklisted” vessels, each tied to illegal fishing in the past. A few weeks ago, they spotted dead sea turtles—“Among the most highly protected species in the world,” Wietse said—tangled in Tunisian nets.


A Black Fish member logging the registration numbers of fishing boats that have been blacklisted by the EU. Photo by Chris Grodotzki

However, to properly catch the estimated 500 illegal Mediterranean driftnetters in action will take bigger, more expensive drones. By next year, Wietse plans to run big, “fixed wing,” petrol-powered unmanned planes, with a much bigger range, which should be able to conclusively prove illegal drift net use. “When governments can’t do anything about such a vital problem,” he told me, “volunteers with a little time and money can make a positive difference.”

Also next year, the Black Fish plan to score a secondhand coast-guard ship to use as a platform for drones and speedboats fast enough to catch drift net users red-handed. They also have a plan to create a diplomatic incident and force the issue: “Once we have the ship,” Wietse told me, “we want to put a British flag on it and then try to enforce the law somewhere close to, say, Spain. This would anger the Spanish and force them to pick sides—illegal poachers or European law. With any luck, this will create an international problem and force governments to crack down.”

Wietse is critical of celebrity fishing activists Jamie Oliver and Hugh Fernley-Whittingstall who support the relaxation of rules over fish that are discarded for being too small or outside of quotas, arguing that their approach is just a way of allowing young fish to be caught and sold legally. He’s also skeptical of so-called “sustainable” fishing in general, which he says “legitimizes destructive fishing,” offering little more than a warm glow to “ethical” shoppers.


The shell of a sea turtle, one of the world's most protected species, found in Tunisia.

When they’re not angering Mafia boat crews, the Black Fish are training teams in diving and other skills in order to widen the organization’s scope. Wietse likens his plan to the early days of police forces, in which private militias were formed into organized forces in their own local areas. They’ve made a film with the help of volunteers, and are spending the winter lecturing and raising money to buy their ship.

Overfishing isn’t the only target of activists with drones. ShadowView are working with the conservation charity SPOTS to catch poachers at secret locations in South Africa, with the Sea Shepherd group filming illegal seal slaughter on the Namibian coast, and with the League Against Cruel Sports in the UK to film illegal fox hunts. Protesters have been using drones to spy on cops for a couple of years now, and their price is falling.

But for Wietse, perhaps unsurprisingly, driftnets and overfishing are still the main aim: “The death of the seas is the worst environmental problem we face, and using drift nets is like destroying a forest to catch a couple of wild boar—it’s just insane.” Luckily, according to him, “It’s also one of the easiest problems to solve—it just needs to be addressed now.”

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